VANCOUVER - What struck Ulara Nakagawa when she first saw Japan's oldest elephant was how she resembled a figurine in a "concrete prison."
"There was absolutely nothing else for her to do," the Vancouver woman wrote in a blog post about the 69-year-old animal. "It was beyond painful to take in."
Nakagawa's observations about the elderly creature has inspired on online petition that has garnered nearly 380,000 supporters who are demanding the Inokashira Park Zoo in Tokyo give the elephant, named "Hanako," either "a real life or send her to sanctuary."
Nakagawa is working with online supporters to find the best scenario for the elephant to live out her final years under conditions wildlife groups agree would be more humane.
"I think people understand time is running out for her," the 35-year-old said in an interview on Thursday. "There's something that struck a chord. I'm sure the imagery has a lot to do with it."
The elephant, whose name translates to "flower child," is visited by hundreds of thousands of people a year. Hanako has only one tooth left and is fed a special diet including bananas, strawberries, herbs and leaves.
After the swell of online support, Nakagawa began working with the woman who started the petition. They are urging the zoo allow an independent expert examine the elephant.
"This would determine whether she could be moved overseas or within the country," she said.
If the expert finds that moving Hanako would be too dangerous, they will request a more spacious enclosure with amenities, such as a heated pool and sand piles.
Keepers at the zoo have acknowledged it's not fully equipped to keep an elephant. Hanako will be its last, said deputy director Hidemasa Hori.
But the aging elephant doesn't like changes and shouldn't be moved, he said.
"It is too late for Hanako," Hori said.
He defended the Japanese style of zoo as an educational exhibition of wildlife, calling it culturally different from the Western view. He also slammed the online petition as "self-righteous and bigoted."
Nakagawa said she was taken aback by the zoo's hard line, noting she originally believed they could work together to help Hanako.
"It would be apparent to anybody that her current conditions can be improved," she said.
Nakagawa's blog quotes Chris Draper at the non-profit Born Free Foundation as saying the status quo isn't acceptable but there's a risk that significant change could be too stressful for Hanako.
"Rightly or wrongly, she has a long experience in her current situation and a radical change such as moving her, even if she is physically capable of the move, needs to be considered carefully," he says in an interview on the blog.
Nakagawa first visited the zoo a few years ago and felt compelled to write the blog post in October after stumbling across a magazine article about Hanako when she visited a month earlier.
A local magazine said the pachyderm was transported to Japan from Thailand