Giraffe effort boosts ill woman

Cancer patient invigorated by leading fundraising

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OBIHIRO, Japan — "I never thought I'd buy a giraffe, but I just might owe this boy my life," said Reiko Tsurukawa said when she first met Sky, a 1-year-old male giraffe, at Obihiro Zoo in Obihiro, Hokkaido, on June 1.

Tsurukawa, 64, had come with a group of about 20 women from Kushiro, about 120 kilometers away, to purchase Sky for about 5.25 million yen (about $52,500). The group had raised 54 million yen in only a year to buy a male and female giraffe. If things went well, the Kushiro Zoo would have a new resident by as early as autumn. The giraffe at Kushiro Zoo died four years ago, and the city said it lacked the funds to replace it.

"Let's gather donations and buy one ourselves," someone suggested over tea in late autumn 2011.

The group was excited by the plan, with some confessing they had been stumped over what to tell to their grandchildren when asked why the zoo had no giraffes. Others wondered if buying a giraffe was even possible.

Tsurukawa was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer in 2009. Her ovaries were removed, but her doctor said it was still possible that she was not totally cured. In January last year, doctors discovered her cancer had metastasized to the lymph nodes.

"Radiation therapy takes its toll. I went back and forth between worrying and feeling determined. It was like moving toward some unknown darkness," she recalled. "It was about then, in March 2012, that my friends invited me to help them raise money. It sounded fun and I got excited. I wanted to get my energy back by throwing myself into something."

Tsurukawa has worked in boutiques since she was 19, and local women knew her to be a reliable coordinator with good sense. The women involved in the donation campaign had also been her customers.

Most were housewives in their 60s, but they were also joined by employees at a local bookstore chain and hotel. Tsurukawa was sought out for her "promptness, efficiency and dynamism."

After marrying at 39, Tsurukawa opened her dream boutique in Kushiro the next year. But her husband passed away from an illness after only six years of marriage. Childless and with her shop now closed, Tsurukawa lives alone.

She had decided to join the donation campaign, but in May had to undergo another surgery. Then her hair fell out during radiation therapy after leaving the hospital. "Can I do any good so sick like this?" she wondered, but when she took the plunge and attended a meeting in June, her friends gave her a warm welcome.

The women named their group "Child's Angel" for the campaign, which was launched in May 2012. Before then, they had contacted other zoos to ask about buying a giraffe.

"It'll be tough to get one in Japan, and buying one from overseas will be 18 million yen for a male or 23 million yen for a female, including shipping fees," they were told. Shocked at the price, some in the group compared it to buying an expensive dog.

They set a goal of 50 million yen, but decided it would be impossible through a normal donation campaign. In July, the group invited about 20 local leaders -- including Mayor Hiroya Ebina, the president of a local credit union and a newspaper chief -- to a "rise to action" meeting, where they handed over general staff headquarters duties to the invitees.

The campaign received some media attention, and they placed about 600 donation boxes at public facilities. Tsurukawa also hit the streets to ask for donations.

In March, she used her customer service experience to invite 500 people to a bazaar, which raised 1.06 million yen. She felt the public was responsive to the effort and people often told her to keep up the good work when they saw her.

"Kids would ask, 'When's the giraffe coming?' So I just had to overcome my disease," she said. "I wanted to fulfill my role as a member of the group and it made me happy to see children smile. Volunteering doesn't just help others, it makes you feel good, too. It's given me the energy to live."

Good news arrived early this year from Morioka. A giraffe that had been loaned to Obihiro Zoo for breeding had given birth -- to Sky.