While the absence of tourists during the COVID-19 pandemic might have deprived the famous deer in Nara, Japan, of their favorite snack, it has worked wonders for their digestive health.
Before the outbreak, millions of tourists descended on the city — once the country’s capital — to view its shrines and temples, and feed the estimated 1,300 free-roaming deer in its main park.
While their preferred snack of senbei rice crackers are a nutritious combination of flour and rice bran, the deer would simply eat too many of them, triggering a raging thirst.
“I suspect some deer ended up drinking too much water,” Nara Deer Preservation Foundation executive director Yoshitaka Ashimura told the Asahi Shimbun.
That took a toll on the animals’ health, causing gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, but now, deprived of their regular supply of senbei, the deer have been forced to seek out more of their traditional staple diet of plants and nuts, he said.
The result has been a transformation in their health, evidenced by the piles of perfectly formed pellet-like droppings affectionately referred to as “black beans.”
Nara’s deer, which have been known to attack visitors who tease them with food or try to take selfies with them, are believed to be divine messengers and were designated natural treasures in 1957.
The animals have the dramatic plunge in visitor numbers to thank for their improved bowel movements.
An estimated 2.58 million people visited Nara prefecture in 2018 — an almost 10-fold increase from 2012 — leading to a spate of deaths among animals who swallowed plastic bags and food wrappers discarded by them.
However, in May, just 1,700 people visited Japan from overseas — a 99.9 percent drop from the same month last year — as a result of travel bans and other restrictions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the trend has hit businesses in Nara, it has brought an unexpected benefit for residents.
“Not only are the animals’ droppings more compact, they also stink less,” said Toshiharu Takaki, a regular visitor to the deer park for 40 years.
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