Depressed Elephant Has Spent 29 Years Alone In This Concrete Cell

Every wall she can reach is scratched up from her trying to get out.

Twenty-nine years ago, Sunny the Asian elephant first arrived at the Ishikawa Zoo in Japan — and she’s been completely alone ever since.

Spending most of her days in a concrete cell behind steel bars, Sunny is constantly rubbing her trunk along the walls of her enclosure out of boredom. Years of scratch marks riddle each of the barren walls.

It has a chilling resemblance to a prison cell.

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Sunny in her cell at the zoo | Elephants in Japan

The only interactions Sunny has with anyone are when the zoo employees quickly slip in and out of her pen each day to give her food and water. To avoid touching her, they move her from one side of the cage to another with a bullhook, a sharp metal tool commonly used to train elephants.

Although Sunny also has an outdoor enclosure, she’s not given regular access to it.

“She stands on concrete for prolonged periods, which is bad for her feet,” Ulara Nakagawa, founder of Elephants in Japan, told The Dodo. “There may be some attempts to compensate for her isolation by interactions with zoo visitors in the outdoor area, however, in the rather noisy indoor environment, she appears to be disturbed by visitors.”

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Sunny in her enclosure | Elephants in Japan

Nakagawa founded Elephants in Japan in memory of Hanako, another elephant, who was confined in solitude for 68 years before dying at the zoo in 2016. Soon after, Nakagawa partnered with ZooCheck to kick off an investigation and research project into the lives of other lonely zoo elephants — and discovered that over a dozen other zoos across Japan were keeping elephants in the same solitary confinements.

Sunny is one of the loneliest elephants of them all, outranked only by Miyako, an elephant who was taken from her family in Thailand at 6 months old to live at the Utsunomiya Zoo in Japan. She’s now been alone for 44 years.

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Miyako, the zoo elephant who has lived alone for 44 years | Flickr/Yu Morita

The lasting effects of the solitude are clear, Nakagawa said — and they’re exacerbated by the the barren, outdated enclosures and lack of enrichment these elephants face.

“Sunny exhibits stereotypic swaying, often seen in captive wild animals kept in substandard enclosures,” Nakagawa said. “They are often associated with boredom, anxiety, frustration and depression. [This] means that Sunny's biological, behavioral and social needs are not being met.”

As highly social animals, elephants form important family bonds with one another, and female elephants in particular never stray very far from their herd. They have been known to cry and trumpet when a member of the herd is in trouble, and if one of their own passes away, they mourn deeply.

Elephants in Japan has started separate online petitions for each solitary elephant, including Sunny, as part of a campaign geared at transferring the elephants to a more appropriate facility where they can live alongside others of their own species.

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Himeka, another solitary elephant who has been alone for 23 years. She spends 18 hours a day in this tiny cell. | Elephants in Japan

While animal advocates around the world petition the zoos to relinquish the elephants, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums announced in January that it would work toward improving the elephants’ living conditions. It’s unclear whether any action has formally been taken.

“To ensure optimal welfare, we believe that elephants should be cared for and housed in a meaningful group context,” the group said in the statement. “They are highly social animals and their communicational and physical interactions among individuals are essential to welfare. JAZA members will strive to transfer and integrate singly-housed elephants to a group structure where possible. Some elephants who have lived alone for a very long time might need longer habituation time to new and different environments, as well as social companions.”

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Fuko the zoo elephant, who has spent most of the past nine years inside this cell at Nagano Chausuyama Zoo | Elephants in Japan

Nakagawa hopes that this announcement, in combination with greater pressure from the general public and more animal welfare training programs for zoo industry workers, will spark the much-needed change to help Sunny and the other horribly lonesome elephants.

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Hanako, the zoo elephant who lived alone for 66 years before dying in 2016 | Flickr/Yu Morita

“One person can make a difference,” Nakagawa said in the report. “It is not a cliché. While it was too late to save Hanako, it is not too late for countless other elephants that need our help.”

To help the elephants move onto the lives they deserve, you can make a donation to ZooCheck and select Elephants in Japan on the drop-down menu. To learn more about each elephant and find online petitions to support their welfare, including Sunny, you can visit Elephants in Japan online.