Out of Japan: Cruelly wounded duck does the walk of life

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - For the past three weeks, the top humanitarian story in the Japanese news has not been about humans. Instead, the nation has worried itself sick over the fate of a pintail duck, which was first discovered on 22 January with the bolt from a crossbow firmly stuck in its back.

The duck could still fly, but was clearly in pain, and found it difficult to walk. Every day it commuted between the Shakuji river in Itabashi ward and Shinobazu pond in Ueno Park in Tokyo. After it had been featured on television it became a national obsession, which continued to grow as park attendants and wildlife officers failed to catch it.

Day by day the duck got weaker, and experts theorised on how much longer it could survive. Some said it would be doomed if it attempted to embark on a migratory trip to the cold north. Others feared the uninjured ducks would eventually gang up on it.

'Can't anyone save it?' implored the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, when asked his opinion by a journalist.

The corpses of two other ducks, transfixed by similar bolts, were found in the area, adding a macabre touch to the drama. A killer was abroad.

The park authorities strung up nets, but only managed to snare healthy ducks and a few pigeons, that hung helplessly in the mesh looking dazed. And, of course, the cameras were there in force. Eventually, the wounded duck's press corps swelled to an unmanageable size. The park officials had to ask them to keep their distance to avoid distressing the feathered star.

In the later stages of the chase, some 70 park attendants and wildlife officials were assigned to catch the duck. Each evening an embarrassed bureaucrat had to explain how, yet again, the duck had evaded its well-meaning pursuers. Few remarked on the irony of the compassion lavished on the duck in a country that has been repeatedly censured for drift-net fishing, harpooning whales and a lack of conservation sense in its exploitation of natural resources in tropical Asia.

Duck itself is a popular delicacy in Japan. But at the same time, it qualifies for the uniquely Japanese qualification of kawai, or cute.

For this reason, every summer television cameras gather outside the headquarters of Mitsui trading company in central Tokyo, waiting for a mother duck that nests beside the building to lead her ducklings out, across the road and into the moat of the Imperial Palace for their first dip. This has been happening for the past 10 years, and its 'cuteness' seems to increase in value each year. Recently television stations have been interrupting other programmes to show the duck parade live. Mitsui has even appointed an employee to keep an eye on the duck's annual brood.

This image of cuteness was ravaged by the sight of the crossbow bolt. So there was a collective sigh of relief last Friday, when the skewered duck was finally apprehended. It had taken the duck experts three weeks to work out that the bird needed to eat, and that a trail of food could be laid to entice it under a net. When put into effect, the plan worked very well.

The duck team was waiting from 4am. At 6am the duck arrived, and it was immediately lured into the net. It was then taken straight to a hospital to be X-rayed. The bolt was found not to have pierced anyof the vital organs, and was removed without an anaesthetic by veterinary surgeons.

'These last few days have been long ones for us,' said a city official. 'We had been worried about the duck's condition, but news that it is all right has given us a feeling of relief.'

The duck is now said to be convalescing comfortably in the hospital. A little tragedy averted in a world full of suffering.