Soaring inflation and the rising cost of living have forced millions around the world to tighten their purse strings. In Japan, that toll has even trickled down to penguins.
At Hakone-en Aquarium in the Kanagawa prefecture south of Tokyo, zookeepers are buying their animals cheaper food to cut costs. Instead of being offered the usual fatty aji (Japanese horse mackerel), penguins and otters have been feeding on saba—a slimy, less expensive protein—since May.
Some of the animals refuse to eat the cheaper food. While some peck at it gingerly, others flat out turn their beaks up at it.
“Even if they’ll take it in their beaks, they’ll just spit it out,” Hiroki Shimamoto, the head zookeeper at Hakone-en, told VICE World News.
In Japan, higher import costs and energy prices—caused by strains on the global economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine—have shocked citizens. In April 2022, Japan’s consumer prices rose by 2.5 percent, the most since October 2014.
The cost of running the aquarium has risen by about 20 percent since the beginning of the year, Shimamoto said, although he wasn’t authorized to say how much it spends on food.
In addition to opting for cheaper food, the aquarium has had to turn off lights and reduce the frequency of filtration tank cleaning, to the extent it doesn’t harm the animals.
Shimamoto said the aquarium first began transitioning its 20 penguins and five seals to cheaper mackerel in May, with only 10 percent of their diet being replaced by the lower-priced protein. It has tightened its belt gradually and starting July, about 30 to 40 percent of the mammals’ food will be cheaper fish.
“I’m not sure if the animals can taste a significant difference, but you can tell they’re not used to it,” he said.
But rest assured, the picky eaters don’t starve. “For the ones who refuse to eat the new fish, we just give them what they used to eat,” the zookeeper said.