“…so please do not feed the deer,” the announcement played over a loudspeaker as soon as I walked out of the terminal. Wait – what!? There’s deer here? Thanks to the Interwebs, many of Japan’s “animal islands” have become pretty well known in recent years, but I’d never heard of Miyajima being described as one.
The small island (officially Itsukushima, but popularly known as Miyajima) in the Western part of the Seto Inland Sea is best known for the red, ‘floating’ torii gate that marks the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. Revered for centuries as a holy place, the shrine is considered one of the most beautiful sights in all of Japan, and, just under an hour away from the city center, a must-see for any visit to Hiroshima.
What I didn’t know was that it is also home to a population of wild-but-tame Sika deer. And that they are slowly starving to death.
The only native deer of the archipelago, Sika (Cervus nippon) have long being considered sacred animals in Japan. Even today, certain populations, like the ones in the city of Nara and the Nara Deer Park, are protected by law. One would think, then, that the deer which roam a place as venerated as Miyajima would be well looked after. In fact, the opposite is true.
In ancient times, the deer on Miyajima were worshipped as messengers of the Gods and locals offered food to them in small temples. By the end of WWII, however, the population had declined drastically and in an effort to curtail extinction, people began to feed the deer directly.
The area enjoyed a boom in tourism once word travelled about the tame deer – and in turn, the population began to recover, wreaking havoc on the island’s vegetation and causing the deer to become dependent on visitors for food.
When residents began to express concerns about the increasing number of deer coming into town looking for food, leaving their droppings and obstructing traffic, Haitsukaishi – the city that has jurisdiction over the deer – decided to implement a management plan to “achieve an appropriate relationship between human and wild deer so that the deer on Miyajima Island can live wild.” Since 2008, feeding the 500+ deer on Miyajima has been prohibited.
Instead of exploring other options like planned feeding, birth control, restoring vegetation or relocating the animals, the ban has essentially cut the deer off from the only food source they’ve known for generations, and the results are, as many animal rights activists have argued, unnecessarily cruel.
So what appears to be curious, friendly deer approaching visitors to say hello on Miyajima is actually the poor, ravenous creatures looking for anything they can get their hooves on to eat – maps, ferry tickets, leftover snacks. Anything.
The government claims that “excessive human interaction should be avoided” and that the problem will eventually sort itself out – on an island with at least 2,000 residents and about 5 million visitors a year.
And while many visitors, like me, are ignorant of the problem before visiting – the announcement on the loudspeaker barely touches on the plan and is delivered in a tone that would have you believe you are doing the deer a favour and not actually contributing to their slow, painful demise – it doesn’t take long to realise something is seriously wrong with the animals.
I saw many lying around, looking very ill from whatever human food they’d consumed, or so I thought at the time. Others were more active, determined to sniff out food from visitors’ bags, which explains the random “beware of the deer” posts I’ve since discovered on TripAdvisor.
I also saw a deer breaking into the top box of a scooter and two European tourists trying to wrestle the papers the deer nabbed out of her mouth. The Europeans thought they won the fight but when I walked past the same scooter a couple of hours later, the top box was open and the paper was gone.
I wish I’d known how dire the situation was at the time. But looking back, I’m not sure what I could have done either.
The deer on Miyajima are so gentle, and as beautiful to watch as the setting sun behind Itsukushima Shrine. I really wish they didn’t have to suffer.
I realise that as a meat-eater, I’m not really in the best position to comment on animal cruelty, but before all you vegans/vegetarians/veg-curious nod smugly at me for admitting that, let me just say I have seen plenty of you engaging in questionable behaviour.
We’re all hypocrites when it comes to animals, I think, and I don’t really know what should be said about that. But I spent the whole way back to Hiroshima thinking about the question.
And now I pose it to you.