Seiji Taniguchi, 64, smiled as he put a tray of sweet potatoes and nutmeg in front of one of the cages in his farm.
“Momo, is it good?” he asked. Momo, a female Japanese macaque, squeaked in joy and nibbled the food.
It is here at Sankyu Bokujo (Thank You Farm) in the mountains of Sanda, Hyogo Prefecture, where abandoned animals like Momo are spared euthanasia, living out the rest of their lives under the care of Taniguchi and his wife, who opened the farm in 1990.
Momo, for example, was found discarded in the mountains 16 years ago with her collar still attached. Others animals include a rabbit that a kindergarten gave up raising, as well as orphaned boar piglets whose parents were killed by humans for foraging through fields for food.
The farm sits in a quiet forest of about 1,300 sq. meters five minutes by car up a mountain trail off the national highway. Upon arrival, visitors are often greeted by a shy male Japanese Shiba dog named Haru.
“It still gets cold feet when it comes to humans,” Taniguchi explained with a smile while Haru, abandoned by its owner in 2005 in a nearby city, approached him, tail wagging wildly.
Taniguchi and his wife, Akiko, 64, started the farm as a side to his manufacturing business because he wanted to convey to others the wonders of the mountain where he had spent his childhood.
Over the years, they fielded an endless number of calls from pet owners who could no longer care for their animals, Taniguchi said. One cat was no longer wanted because the owner was moving, while another owner was set to abandon a dog that was “shedding too much.”
While there are other organizations that take in abandoned cats and dogs, few will accept nondomesticated animals that require different levels of care.
“Someone has to protect them,” Taniguchi decided. Narrowing down the scope to discarded animals that no one wants to adopt, the couple have accepted about 500 over two decades.
“Each and every one of them are victims whose fates have been trifled with by humans,” he said.
There have been several notable “residents” of the farm in the past, including a thoroughbred foal from Hokkaido, abandoned because it was too slow to be a racehorse, and a mandarin duck that had been shot by hunters who were fooling around.
Fortunately, both were able to live out their lives on the farm, which now is home to 19 animals representing 10 different species.
“I will take care of them until they breathe their last breath,” Taniguchi said, adding that the farm no longer accepts animals that are expected to live longer than he will.
According to the Environment Ministry, about 249,000 lost or abandoned cats and dogs were taken in by animal care centers nationwide in fiscal 2010. Roughly 204,000 could not find a new home and were euthanized.
There is no official count for other discarded animals because only dogs and cats are covered by the law that requires local authorities take custody of such pets.
Every year, about 10,000 visiting students take part in a nature program at the farm. Participants are mostly third- and fourth-grade elementary school students from Hyogo Prefecture.
The program allows the children to have experiences that few would ever have, including walks through the forest with Taniguchi where they can chew sorrel leaves used to quell thirst when lost in the mountains. The children can also participate in activities such as fishing and feeding the animals at the farm.
The program has exceeded Taniguchi’s expectations, with many children expressing a stronger appreciation of nature.
Among them, one has gone on to become an associate university professor and researcher of insects, while another has become a female jockey.
But there are also times when visitors’ inconsiderate behavior has left Taniguchi with a bitter taste in his mouth.
On one occasion, he found a mother and her daughter hitting a tortoise at the farm with tree branches as if it were a drum.
When approached by Taniguchi, both mother and daughter said, “It’s OK because (the tortoise) has a shell so it won’t hurt.”
“They were harming a life as if it were a game,” Taniguchi said. “Bullying at schools is an extension along the same line.”