Two of the world's premier zoological and animal preservation groups are calling on Japan to drastically improve conditions at the country's bear parks, where the animals are kept in squalid and overcrowded concrete pits. The experts say the standards at Japan's bear parks are as bad as they have witnessed anywhere in the world.
Despite more than a decade of complaints from international organizations and appeals from animal lovers around the world, Japan has done little to improve conditions at its privately run bear parks.
Top officials of two international organizations this week visited several of Japan's largest bear exhibitions, and shared their dismay with reporters in Tokyo on Friday.
Veterinarian David Jones, who formerly ran the Zoological Society of London and is now director of the North Carolina Zoological Park in the United States, says he cannot understand why Japan treats its native black and brown bears so poorly.
"We find it very odd that Japan, as one of the most advanced, refined cultures in the world, is keeping its most magnificent animal in a concrete pit," he said.
The visitors said that, as some of the worst examples, as many as 200 of the animals are kept together in close quarters. The president of the World Association for Zoos and Aquariums, Edward McAlister, says such overcrowding causes the stressed-out bears to fight each other.
"To see that number of bears in those conditions is something that I have never seen anywhere in my life, either in a first-world country or some of the other second or third-world countries to which I've been," Mr. McAlister said.
Bear expert Victor Watkins, wildlife director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, told reporters the delegation was able to meet with officials at only one of Japan's seven bear parks. He says the officials listened to what the foreigners had to say - but that is not good enough.
"Sitting down and listening to these comments is one thing," said Victor Watkins. "Taking action to make improvements is another. I also had a meeting with those people two years ago. They said they would make improvements, but there was no change."
The delegation members say the conditions at the bear parks clearly violate Japan's game protection law, but they say the country needs more specific legislation on zoos to bring them up to first-world standards.
The World Association for Zoos and Aquariums says it will be issuing a report on Japan's bear parks citing five key problems, including lack of treatment for injured and sick bears, and forcing the animals to perform what the group calls "circus and other unnatural acts."