For many foreigners, living in Japan poses a host of challenges. Consider, however, the life of Elizabeth Oliver, the owner of ARK animal rescue shelter, who manages a facility that houses 300 dogs, 200 cats, 3 rabbits and one fox in a location that can be best described as the “middle of nowhere.” In light of Oliver’s constant battles, both bureaucratic and domestic, and her having to deal with a veritable Noah’s ark worth of life, one’s own worries may loom less large.
“I think animal welfare is to be compassionate, and to treat animals humanely.” — This is the ethos which serenades Oliver’s conscience and is the impetus for devoting her life to the well-being of Japan’s neglected cats and dogs.
ARK, the acronym for Animal Rescue Kansai, is a shelter, or more accurately a chaotic cacophony of animals in cages, in Osaka’s Myokenguchi, and is probably the biggest and most reputable establishment of its kind in Japan.
The facility aims to rescue and shelter dogs that have been disowned or abused and aims to relocate them to new homes.
The 67-year-old Oliver oversees the shelter, which currently has a staff of 30 and divides her time between management, which includes giving speeches regularly around Japan, holding educational courses and planning improvements and projects.
She is also known for her dedication to rescue. After the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, Oliver saved 600 dogs. She is also proactive in prosecution.
Even on a day-to-day basis, Oliver is busy hosting celebrities and acting as a shelter and animal welfare spokesman.
Her home is a small cottage surrounded by kennels and cages, with a constant background soundtrack of barking and howling. The closest neighbor is about a 15-minute walk away, the nearest train station about 20 minutes by car, and there are no shops in the vicinity.
Given the extremes of her current life, it is of interest to know how the British native, who settled upon Japanese shores 33 years ago, came to lead this somewhat unfathomable existence. She says it’s mostly due to her upbringing.
“I was 7, I got a pony and realized the responsibility of owning a big animal. My mother was quite strict. If I came home from school and was hungry, she would ask if the pony had eaten. I learned that you always look after your animals before yourself.
“That responsibility is a routine thing. If you can’t take that responsibility, you shouldn’t have an animal.”
Oliver was born in 1940 in Somerset, U.K., and started her travels post studies at London University, exploring a slew of countries before landing in Japan in 1974 to try her hand at teaching English, at Osaka Kogyo University. She began by volunteering at another dog shelter, since shut down, and started ARK in 1990 with a group of friends and a few dogs.
Coming from the U.K., with its relatively high standard of animal welfare, and a concept of charity more ingrained than Japan, cultural differences were more than a contrary annoyance for Oliver, “In England there are dogs that are thrown away, but on the whole there is a safety-net system. The shelter will take them in. In Japan, the options are only two — take them to the hokenjo or throw them away.”
Oliver is referring to the usual method of pet “removal” in Japan, which entails taking your unwanted pet to the local-government-run pound, where they will gas the animal (usually slow suffocation by carbon dioxide).
Providing homes to animals that would probably meet this end is a mammoth task. The biggest challenges, however, she says, are not the animals themselves, but the people and the funding.
“There have been a lot of funny people involved in animal welfare, people who run off with all the money. One problem we have now is three or four cases of people taking ARK’s name and trying to copy us. ARK Angels is one. We have actually had staff here who have stolen our mailing list, that sort of thing.”
“Animal welfare, you can’t make money from it, but you need money. Some people think it’s a money-spinning thing. You are putting out money all the time. It involves a lot of time and energy. The base is animals. The base is caring for animals.”
In the U.K., where animal welfare groups are somewhat legitimized and not treated with the suspicion they are in Japan, many of the donations come from bequests, with some reaching millions of pounds. Moreover, tax breaks are offered to companies wanting to improve their corporate image by aiding charities, still not the case here.
“With any kind of charity, the object is obviously not to make money, it’s not for business. But, you need money in order to operate.”
Oliver believes the key to assuring ARK is successful is having it become better known and making the idea of adopting, not buying animals from pet shops, the norm.
Oliver’s future challenge is probably the biggest to date “Because of my age, I have got to find someone to take over ARK.
“It’s hard to find the right person, someone who is bilingual, who will be in Japan for a while and has a feel for animals.”
For Oliver, with a life of achievements, obviously the sacrifices are immense. Her life is hardly what one would call comfortable. However, having established an institution that saves hundreds of lives, alongside the challenges are the joys.
The result makes it worth it, she says. “It’s really nice when an animal that has had a really bad start in life gets a new home.”