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Stray observations on booming pet culture

There are more pets than children in Japan, but troubling attitudes about treatment of animals are also widespread

by Ian Priestley

Pets are big business these days. Cat and dog cafes, animal accessory shops, dog hotels and even aesthetic salons for animals are easy to find. On weekends, in the large park near my house, I see people walking what appear to be entrants in a pedigree dog competition: dachshunds in mini-sweaters promenade alongside beribboned King Charles spaniels. Many a pet’s lifestyle would be the envy of most salarymen.

However, the park — like many others in Japan — is also home to a legion of animals who live a life far removed from those of the coddled pets. After they have gone home with their owners, dozens of stray cats remain.

The number of animals abandoned every year in Japan is high. An investigation conducted by the Environment Ministry estimated that each year around 350,000 animals are put down at government-managed control centers. Some owners see dumping unwanted pets in a park as a better alternative to taking them to a control center — it is certainly less troublesome, given that no money needs to be paid, nor reasons given.

Recently in the local park I came across one cat that was covered in sores, scratching to get at the fleas that seemed to have eaten away half of an ear. A young boy approached the animal but his mother quickly pulled him away. “Kitanai (dirty),” she warned.

The cat was clearly in distress, and I decided to see if there was something I could do. A Web search and a phone call later, I was talking to the ARK (Animal Refuge Kansai) representative in Tokyo, Briar Simpson.

ARK takes in abandoned animals and tries to find them new homes, but it also focuses on activism for proper treatment of animals. On this front, the organization believes widespread change is needed in Japan, all the way from government through to animal breeders, sellers and pet owners.

ARK’s Tokyo branch, which started up in the spring of 2005, responded swiftly to my call. They contacted the park keeper and arranged a meeting to discuss the welfare of the strays. Also in attendance at the meeting was an elderly woman who was introduced as the park’s “unofficial cat minder.” She agreed to buy medicine for the cat (using donated money), and promised to keep a close eye on “Shiro-chan” — it turned out that the woman calls many of the strays by name.

Her position is a tricky one, but increasingly common. Feeding cats in parks is generally discouraged, as the authorities don’t want to make the dumping of pets seem like a viable option. The sheer number of strays in some parks, though, has led to volunteers being allowed to at least ensure that cats are fed and neutered.

After Shiro-chan’s case was settled, Simpson spoke with me about the challenges ARK faces in its work. As she sees it, many problems come down to a lack of education.

“Last week, we had a woman in Yokohama who called to say that there were two stray cats who had just had kittens that had come into her garden,” she said. “In this case, we’ll spay the mother cats and put them back, and the (volunteer) will feed them . . . The kittens, we will re-home.”

But the cats were lucky that the caller had not followed the advice offered by an acquaintance: “Put them in a plastic bag and put them in the rubbish,” she was counselled.

Much of ARK’s work focuses on enlightening people, especially children, about the responsibilities of animal care. Staff members go to schools and give talks about what animals require to remain healthy and stress-free.

“It’s what people are used to,” Simpson says. “I went to a pet expo recently, and there were animals there in cages that did not look healthy to me and were not displaying natural animal behavior. They were either asleep because they were so tired, or just stressed. But if that was all you had seen from a young age, these kind of pet shops, you may not be able to see that there’s something wrong.”

ARK was founded by a British woman, Elizabeth Oliver, in Kansai in 1990. The Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 was a major challenge for the group early on, with around 600 animals rescued in the wake of the disaster, but it also jump-started the scale of their operations. The group’s volunteer and staff numbers continued to grow in the years following and it became a certified nonprofit organization in 1999.

Although ARK relies heavily on the desire and dedication of its Japanese volunteers and staff, I wondered whether its operations might seem a little “colonial” — Westerners teaching Japanese about animal rights.

“It’s no longer a question of culture,” in Simpson’s view. “I don’t really like to use the word ‘rights,’ ” she says. “It’s just a question of humane treatment of animals. It’s a feature of a good society. I wouldn’t want to live in a society that didn’t have that idea . . . I think a country with the second-largest economy in the world can do better than it does.”

Japanese photojournalist Shigemichi Oishi’s work has done a lot to raise awareness and encourage institutional change. Photographs he took at a government-run animal control center, first published in Days magazine, include disturbing shots of dogs and cats prior to and after their visit to the so-called “dream box,” where they are gassed with carbon dioxide.

Animals that end up in the control centers are either picked up from the street or taken there by owners who no longer want to look after them. From then, animals have approximately a week for someone to adopt them before they are killed.

“Now that the number of pets (in Japan) has surpassed the number of children, perhaps we should question the overheated state of pet culture,” Oishi argues in the essay that accompanies his photographs.

Criticism of the number of animals being killed is growing, and the government is feeling the pressure. The Environment Ministry has set a goal of reducing the number of animals killed in control centers by half.

In June 2006, the government announced changes to the Animal Protection Act, tightening regulations on breeders and pet shop owners and increasing penalties for violations. They now must meet certain criteria for the treatment of animals before they can be registered to operate. The maximum fine for failing to provide animals with food and water has been increased from ¥300,000 to ¥500,000. The penalty for killing an animal can be as stiff as a fine of ¥1 million or one year in prison.

By and large, though, laws are still fairly lax. Breeders, owners and sellers are legally required to provide animals with only the basic requirements for survival: food, water and a cage big enough “to make regular movement such as getting up, lying down or flapping their wings in a normal position” possible.

Some breeders and sellers treat animals as nothing more than a commodity. Sales campaigns and special offers on certain pets are common, and breeders often aggressively tap trends and fads, as Oishi noted in his research.

“When I began my investigation, there were many golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers (in pet shops). At one time, there were many Siberian huskies. After the popularity boom of a certain breed has faded, the same phenomenon (large-scale abandonment) has always followed.”

ARK has been involved in a number of cases against breeders. In 2007, the organization investigated a breeder in Saga Prefecture, who kept Shiba dogs in cages covered in feces, stacked on top of each other, with dead animals caged together with the living. ARK contacted the governor of Saga and the police, and collected a petition. Media coverage amped up the pressure until the local government finally prosecuted.

Pet owners also have important responsibilities to live up to, of course, and local governments are working to make them do so. It is getting harder to simply dump a pet at a control center, wave goodbye and not have to think about the consequences. Employees at some centers now try and persuade owners not to abandon their animals, and make them fully aware of what will happen if they do.

In particular, the city of Kumamoto has taken a hard line, in some cases requiring owners to watch the animal being killed as a condition of abandonment. This does seem to be having an effect. The number of animals killed at the Kumamoto control center was 78 in 2007, down from 946 a decade earlier.

Once accepted by control centers, however, animals face almost certain death due to people’s lack of willingness to adopt. Around 98 percent of cats brought in are killed.

Cuteness is a major criterion for pet choice (hence the over-representation of puppies and kittens in pet shop windows), and on this front animals in shelters tend to score low — many are disabled, blind, old or bear clear evidence of the kind of life they have led. The cuteness factor, or loss of it over time, also has a lot to do with animals being abandoned in the first place.

A too-common example is a call recently received by an ARK shelter in Tokyo, from a woman who had two miniature dachshunds that she simply didn’t want anymore. In this case ARK asked for a ¥30,000 surrender fee, which will go to the animals’ upkeep, guaranteeing their safety and care. Simpson describes her as “someone who made a poor choice . . . If she had thought more, she may not have got them in the first place.” Simpson wishes pet buyers would “smarten up.”

The scene in my local park, where the cat population seems to be flourishing, suggests there remain many people with some learning to do.

Shiro-chan has disappeared, but the patch she once lurked in is now frequented by a younger tortoise-shell. Its fur was suspiciously well-kept the first time I saw it — recently abandoned, it seemed. The last time, its fur had lost its sheen, and it was scratching the sores that were beginning to develop around its ears.