Stray cats captivated by couple’s efforts to help

by Thomasina Larkin

For anyone who has wandered the streets of Japan, the sight of a woman carrying her designer-clad lapdog will be a familiar one.

Also familiar will be the sight of a dirty, scrawny cat, perhaps covered in bloody sores and missing clumps of fur, running for cover in the nearest nook or cranny.

It doesn’t take an animal lover to realize that cats are widely neglected in Japan, and foreigners here often wonder why that is and what is being done about it.

“When I was in America, I didn’t think about cats and dogs, I didn’t have a pet,” says David Wybenga, who moved here 15 years ago. “But when my wife and I came here, we would find starving kittens in parking lots and we couldn’t ignore it. We couldn’t keep walking. So we’d pick them up, and little by little we started forming a plan.”

The plan was simple. Basing their methodology on an international cat population control program called TNR, or Trap-Neuter-Return, Wybenga and his wife, Susan Roberts, created Japan Cat Network in 2000.

“We may not be able to take that poor cat off the street, but we can have it spayed and can probably prevent hundreds of cats from being born,” Wybenga says, adding that the program can also help prevent the widespread existence of FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS.

“We’ve found that FIV-AIDS is rampant among cats in Japan,” Wybenga says. “FIV cats can do well, when cared for, but without attentive care their condition steadily worsens.

“FIV is passed through mating and through fighting, and fighting happens because of mating. That happens because they aren’t neutered,” he says. “After years of doing our program in our town, the cats remaining on the streets are all healthy — they look like pets and are an attractive part of the community.”

The method of TNR involves choosing a point to start from and then radiating out, trapping stray cats and taking them to a clinic where they can then be spayed or neutered before being returned to where they were found. A caregiver then continues to monitor the situation and to provide maintenance.

“There’s a reason those cats are there,” Roberts says. “People feed them secretly, or they eat garbage, so moving the cats won’t actually solve the problem. And after the cats are spayed or neutered they look much better, they look very healthy. So in most cases we want to put them back.

“Our main focus is to help people spay and neuter to prevent more animals from getting into this situation,” she says.

As new cats don’t typically want to settle down in an area where other cats already dwell, returning cats to the place they were found should also help curb population growth in those areas.

“The SPCA promotes this kind of program and that’s what we’ve done in our town,” Wybenga says, adding that this type of pet control, while still uncommon here, is gaining momentum in parts of Japan. However, in rural areas harsher methods are still used.

“It’s estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of Americans have their pets spayed or neutered, and those kinds of stats would also be true in Canada, England, western Europe,” Wybenga says. “But in Japan it is about 30 percent.”

“Vets here don’t promote it, and as a result, a lot of cat owners let their cats in and out without spaying them, they have kittens they don’t want, and then a great number of people surrender them to animal control where they are almost always killed — often using outdated and inhumane methods,” he says. “Since the highest percentage of cats destroyed occurs in the months of March, April and May, we’re encouraging people to start efforts to spay and neuter cats in their communities as soon as possible.”

According to ALIVE, or All Life In Viable Environment, which publishes online information about the disposal of dogs and cats in Japan, 243,850 cats were destroyed in the fiscal year ending March 2005. This number, however, is likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Wybenga points out that most Japanese don’t even abandon kittens to the local pound (hokensho or hokenjo). “They abandon them to fields, schools, temples, parking lots, convenience stores. Many Japanese people think it’s less cruel to put a cat into a field than to drive it to a hokensho where they know it’s going to be killed.”

“Animal shelters, which are institutional parts of most cities in developed countries, are almost unheard of here. The few that exist are always full,” Wybenga says. “One challenge is to find enough people interested in adoption to create space for new rescues, and another is to limit the population needing sheltering in the first place.”

Japan Cat Network, based in Shiga Prefecture, lends traps to people in the Kansai region, helps with transportation and holds regular information meetings. Wybenga and Roberts also welcome questions from anyone across Japan and can connect people with lower-cost clinics.

“We also try to help people who are already doing TNR to rehome kittens they find,” Roberts says. “You can’t put kittens back where you’ve found them because they’re too young and it’s dangerous. Also, if cats are too sick we don’t put them back; we try to find homes for them.

“The other part of what we’re trying do is create a venue for people to adopt animals rather than purchase them, and we also offer fostering for people who will be here for only a short time,” Roberts says.

The Japan Cat Network shelters about 50 cats waiting for new homes. Volunteer help, whether in the form of time, money or resources, is always needed. Web site: http//japancatnet.com/