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Japan’s cull of once-loved pets cries out for German-style controls

by Roger Pulvers

An early riser, I am generally on one of the first trains out of my local station and walking across the sprawling university campus by 6 a.m.

One advantage of this custom is that I get to meet a lot of nice dogs.

Now that it is winter, many of these dogs are dressed to the nines. One of the posh pooches I bumped into last week wore a Burberry coat, complete with belt tied in a provocative “Alain Delon” trench coat knot.

The Japanese, like all other nationalities I have encountered, love their dogs, but some of the owners seem to consider them as a kind of designer pet. Once their novelty has faded, these unfortunate animals — some of which would have cost an arm and a leg at a fancy shop — are taken to the municipal pound or simply abandoned.

What happens to them after that is the subject of “Inutachi o Okuru Hi” (“The Day We Say Goodbye to Our Dogs”) by Noriko Imanishi, published by Kinnohoshi. This is a poignant and important book that should be read by all present or prospective dog owners. Sympathetically written, and with hiragana beside all but the easiest kanji, I recommend it to non-Japanese readers as well.

“The Day We Say Goodbye to Our Dogs” is subtitled “These lives were not brought into this world to be turned into ash.”

In September 2009, Imanishi visited the institution featured in the book, the Ehime Prefecture Animal Protection Center. It was an experience about which she writes, “Not a day went by after that that I didn’t think of the dogs and cats I saw dead in the stainless steel box. I heard the dogs telling me, ‘We’re happier trusting people than we are hating them.’ Why were their lives taken in betrayal of that trust?”

The Ehime center was set up in December 2002 to look after stray or abandoned dogs and cats. Ideally, these animals are returned to their owners or have new homes found for them. The dogs and cats not claimed or rehomed are put down.

People who hear about these animal centers often react with dismay and anger at the outright slaughter. They rarely, however, ask themselves why and how it is that dogs and cats end up there. The policy of killing such animals is by no means exclusive to Japan. In the United States, the toll is upward of 4 million dogs a year, and in Australia as many as 200,000 a year are “euthanized.”

The reasons given for abandonment of dogs are similar in all countries: Can’t train it; dog doesn’t listen to me; too costly; landlord issues; moving house; just tired of the thing, and so on. Prospective parents who thought in such ways about offspring would no doubt conclude that they should not produce one.

One wonders why people who think it would be “so cute” to have a dog, plunge into ownership without considering its responsibilities.

Approximately 4,000 dogs are killed every year at the Ehime center. The disturbing thing about this is not only the killing itself but the fact that the animals are put down by being shut up in a stainless-steel box, called “The Dream Box,” and gassed with carbon dioxide. Such a practice is surely cruel, and certainly inhumane, especially in a world where, in developed countries, dogs and cats are put down by injection of an anaesthetic.

In the book, Kazuo Hamada’s photographs of the dogs before and after are so stark and gripping they break your heart.

In prewar and early postwar Japan, millions of dogs were put down with a dose of strychnine. A fate worse than death awaited dogs who were handed over to medical laboratories, usually those connected with a university, for experimentation.

By the mid-1980s, Japan’s boom years, 80,000 dogs a year were sentenced to this variety of torture. Thankfully, the practice has been entirely discontinued.

As for their euthanasia, by 1974, 1.2 million dogs were being killed in government pounds every year. That number has fallen consistently over the years, down to 200,000 in 2002, 164,000 in 2003, 118,000 in 2006 and fewer than 83,000 in 2008. The number of shelter dogs finding homes has also risen annually, reaching nearly 33,000 in 2008.

The country with the best record — and one surely to be aimed for by all others — is Germany. Every pet owner in Germany must pay a pet tax of about 100 euro (¥11,000) for the first animal and twice that for every additional one. All dogs must be microchipped. You are not allowed to leave your dog in a car if it is over 22°C outside; and every dog taken across national borders in the European Union is required to have a pet passport.

In Australia, where my two dogs live, the details of the laws governing pets differ from place to place. In our district, we were required to microchip them and pay for registration at the council offices. Registration for a desexed dog costs about 40 Australian dollars (¥3,500). If you do not desex your dog, you must pay four times that amount.

The people at the Ehime Prefecture Animal Protection Center do their utmost to train humans in how to look after a pet. They ask prospective owners if everyone in the household is in favor of having it; if they will look after it until it dies; if they will provide the proper environment for it; if they are planning to move; if they understand the necessity of having it desexed; if they can provide for it; if they have considered their neighbors; and if they will abide by the laws governing pet ownership. Only when they are satisfied will they hand over a dog or cat.

The killing of animals in any way is not consistent with the ideals of a humane society, and the author of “The Day We Say Goodbye to Our Dogs,” as well as the workers at the center, believe this.

But the responsibility for ameliorating this situation lies entirely with the Japanese people, who are, it must be said, making progress in the struggle against cruel treatment of pets and toward accountability for their welfare.

The aim of the center is “to move from a society that saves the lives of abandoned pets to one in which fewer and fewer pets are abandoned.”

Toward this end, the center holds obedience classes and encourages children to come to it to socialize with the animals and learn about their needs.”It’s not the animal protection center that kills animals,” writes Imanishi, “it’s human society that does it. We’ve begun to realize that, and must ask ourselves how we will shoulder the responsibility of our guilt.

“It’s a given that a society in which animals are happy is one in which humans are happy.”

It’s fine to wrap your pets in designer clothes. But real love for them is expressed in how all pets are treated in your country, not only by you but by everyone.