Photo/IllutrationChildren check out a lion at Kumamoto City Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Kumamoto on Dec. 22, 2018. The lion had been returned after being evacuated during the Kumamoto earthquakes. (Asahi Shimbun file photo).

The night the Kumamoto quake struck three years ago, veterinarian Atsushi Matsumoto, 46, was working overtime at the Kumamoto City Zoological and Botanical Gardens, when everything around him, himself included, began shaking violently.

First, he checked the safety of the zoo's ferocious animals. All five, including a tiger, a snow leopard and a lion, were safe and sound. But phone calls started pouring in from worried local residents, asking, “Has a lion escaped?”

Matsumoto went online and immediately found a tweet saying, “A lion has gotten loose from a zoo. Kumamoto.” The post, which came with a photo showing a lion walking in a residential area at night, went viral.

Matsumoto tried to stop the vicious rumor from spreading but, due to a bad Internet connection, it took a whole day and night before he finally managed to post accurate information about the zoo's situation on its official website.

A series of strong earthquakes threw the facility into utter confusion. Cages tilted over and liquefied soil flowed in. But the biggest problem was the failure of the water supply. Animals cannot live long without water.

The staff decided to evacuate the wild animals due to concerns about continued aftershocks.

Major earthquakes in recent years, such as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, have led zoos across Japan to build a network of mutual support to deal with emergencies during such disasters.

An organization linking zoos and aquariums sent a huge aquarium to the Kumamoto zoological garden and helped find facilities that could take the animals from the damaged zoo. They were thus moved to facilities outside Kumamoto Prefecture in the first-ever animal evacuation operation across prefectural borders during a disaster in Japan.

The Kumamoto City Zoological and Botanical Gardens fully reopened at the end of last year, and the five fierce animals that were evacuated to facilities in Fukuoka and Oita prefectures were returned.

The male lion, San, 10, came back with a mate, Kuria, a 5-year-old lioness from the zoo that he was evacuated to. Since they got on well together and seemed to have good reproductive prospects, the zoo offered to give her to the Kumamoto zoological park, saying it hoped that the gift will somehow contribute to Kumamoto's reconstruction.

The Kumamoto park has been receiving many visitors from zoos in other prefectures who want to inspect the rebuilt facilities and learn lessons from its experiences during and after the disaster.

Let us hope that the network of mutual support among zoos in this earthquake-prone nation will expand and evolve further.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 14

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.