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Japan children's zoo ready for Year of the Rat with new rodent exhibition space

A degu, one of the rodents on display at Eco Hauchu in Saitama Children's Zoo, is seen in this image taken in Higashimatsuyama, Saitama Prefecture, Dec. 4, 2019. (Mainichi/Shu Hatakeyama)

SAITAMA -- An exhibit focusing on rodents, including some never seen before in Japan, is attracting visitors at Saitama Children's Zoo in the eastern Japan city of Higashimatsuyama ahead of the Year of the Rat in 2020.

The new space, called "Eco Hauchu," has proven popular with residents and visitors to this prefecture just north of Tokyo. It houses 19 rodent species, including three on show in this country for the first time, across a space of around 250 square meters. These include the naked mole-rat, which can be viewed in a setting resembling its natural habitat. On the Mainichi Shimbun's trip to the facility, visitors could be heard saying how excited they were to be able to finally see one.

Rodents account for the largest order of mammals, and the center was opened to improve people's understanding of their biology. For this purpose, it has been built with geothermal heating and other features to provide a comfortable environment for the animals.

The space is split into a section for diurnal rodents and another where the lights are kept low for nocturnal ones. There are five rooms for nine species active in daylight, including firsts for Japan such as the gundi, or comb rat, native to the Atlas Mountains in Northwest Africa. In the same part of Eco Hauchu is the hyrax, which is normally found in East Africa and other areas.

The exterior of Eco Hauchu, which houses a panoply of rodents, is seen at Saitama Children's Zoo in Higashimatsuyama, Saitama Prefecture, on Dec. 4, 2019. (Mainichi/Shu Hatakeyama)

Nighttime dwellers, meanwhile, get seven rooms, and there are 10 species to see, including the northern Luzon giant cloud rat, which makes its natural habitat on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. It is the first time the southeast Asian animal has been put on general display in Japan.

Saitama Children's Zoo has focused on rodent exhibitions. With around 30 species under its care, the zoo already boasts one of the largest collections of rodents in the country. In October it was responsible for the first birth of a northern Luzon giant cloud rat in Japan, and is working hard on initiatives to get the animals reproducing.

Before Echo Hauchu opened, many of its breeding staff did training in European countries including Germany and Italy, where many species of rodent live. In an attempt to build a natural habitat close to the ones the animals originally lived in, the zoo's staff have exercised their ingenuity to recreate the feel of jungles, rocky mountains and other environments using trees, mortar, and other materials. Handmade illustrations of rodents by staff have also been put up in the Eco Hauchu entrance as part of a "Year of the Rat photo spot."

Rieko Tanaka, the head of the zoo, said, "I think there are people out there who dislike rodents, but they are animals with many appealing points. As we welcome the Year of the Rat in 2020, I want many people to come and pay us a visit."

(Japanese original by Shu Hatakeyama, Saitama Bureau)

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