JCN on mission to tackle Japan's stray-cat problem

At first glance, Japan might seem like an animal paradise, with a plethora of products at hand for the pampered pet. However, it doesn’t take too long to realize that animal welfare lags behind much of the developed world in certain respects.

Rather than adopting an animal from a shelter, many people still turn to pet shops when seeking a kitten or puppy. In the process, they pay big bucks and are unwittingly fueling an industry that typically separates babies from their mothers far younger than recommended in an attempt to cash in on the cuteness factor.

What’s more, spaying and neutering of cats and dogs is still not widespread in many areas of Japan. Litters of unwanted kittens, in particular, are dumped at no more than a few weeks of age. While a lucky few might be found by kind rescuers, far more succumb to illness, crows or the elements. Cats that do survive eke out a perilous existence, perhaps relying on the kindness of volunteers who feed them, and having more litters to add to the feral cat population.

When Susan Roberts of the Japan Cat Network (JCN) came to Shiga Prefecture to teach English in the early 1990s, she soon noticed all the stray cats. Along with David Wybenga, she launched a successful trap, neuter, release (TNR) program in the area.

“Before coming to Japan, I had no experience volunteering at an animal shelter. But I’ve always loved animals, and my family has always had pets,” says Roberts, an American. “David and I had previously found a few abandoned kittens that we’d been able to find homes for, but we realized that the scale was too big for this approach. Another issue was that many of the strays were too wild to even be touched.”

TNR has gained popularity round the world as a humane and effective method of controlling feral cat populations. All the cats in a colony are trapped, neutered and then returned to their territory. This stops the cycle of endless litters of kittens. In some cases, younger kittens and friendly adult felines may be placed in foster care and then adopted out.

According to Roberts, their small-scale TNR project in Shiga was so successful that she and Wybenga decided to share their experience with others.

“We built a website, and over the years JCN has assisted hundreds of people in starting new TNR projects and in rescuing animals,” she says. “JCN now works with five other small, individually run no-kill sheltering efforts, as well as running a JCN-organized shelter in Fukushima.”

Helping animals affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami has now become one of JCN’s major projects.

“Immediately following the disaster in northern Japan, we set up a rescue base and shelter in Fukushima to support evacuees,” says Roberts. “That has since become our main base of operations and shelter, and we continue to regularly support evacuees with pet issues.”

Since first becoming involved with animal rescue in Japan, Roberts is pleased to note there have been some positive changes over the years.

“One of the most impactful improvements in companion animal welfare in Japan is a sharp decrease in destruction rates at animal control centers, which is a direct result of increased spay-neuter compliance, particularly in regards to dogs,” she says.

Even so, Roberts acknowledges there is still a long way to go.

“We need to do more to encourage and educate the general public about the benefits of spaying and neutering their dogs and cats before the first heat cycle. We also need to provide lower-cost options.”

Roberts says that improving the status quo in terms of the number of humane shelters for housing animals waiting for new homes is another priority.

With so many animals needing help and with limited resources, Roberts tries to focus on the big picture in order to stay motivated.

“I think that the main challenge, at least from my own perspective, is remaining positive while working for social change,” she says. “Ideally, this work is about more than just saving a number of cats or dogs: It’s about changing the way that the general public thinks about animals. It’s about giving people positive rescue experiences so that they share those experiences with others and go on to do it again.”

Roberts shares one recent success story that is particularly heartwarming, concerning a cat that had clearly made the most of her “nine lives.” A volunteer in Okinawa contacted JCN about a friendly injured stray she had taken to the vet. Upon examination it turned out that the cat, which is partially blind, had sustained a broken jaw and two broken legs in previous accidents yet had somehow survived.

“The rescuer’s home was completely full of cats from an already growing TNR project in the area, and without help, there was little choice but to return the kitty to live outside,” says Roberts. “However, we were able to step in to help right away, and by the end of October this kitty was placed in a loving home in Tokyo. This was thanks to a combined effort from a number of kind volunteers and supporters.”

As a volunteer organization, JCN is totally reliant on donations, sponsorship and special events to fund its activities. Roberts says that animal lovers in Japan can help in a number of ways.

“We are always looking for shelter volunteers, foster caregivers, transporters, translators and a variety of other pet rescue assisters. Follow our Facebook pages to see some of the rescue needs, and share with friends hoping to add a new pet to their families.”

Pick up litters, advises Japan Cat Network

We’ve all seen them: Tiny kittens alone in the world after being dumped by some heartless person. So what can you do?

“It’s important to know that if you see abandoned kittens, you are probably their one and only hope,” says Susan Roberts of the Japan Cat Network. “They will not survive long at all, due to a host of dangers. There is no time to simply let a rescue group know where you saw the kittens.

“Please, do the kind thing and pick them up immediately. For more information on what to do, please check our website ( and our FAQ as well.

“Feel free to post on our Facebook page for other kinds of assistance ( We have people standing by ready to advise and assist in a number of areas throughout Japan.”

Do you know about a citizens’ group or of any other helpful resources? Comments and questions:

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