Tourist disturbed by treatment of horses on Mount Fuji courses

Views on what constitutes humane treatment of animals vary widely from country to country, and it is perhaps fair to say that Japan’s stance on animal welfare may differ from what is considered acceptable in many Western countries.

This week’s query comes from R.M., an overseas tourist who was concerned at the condition of some horses she saw on a recent visit to Mount Fuji. R.M. also sent the photos reprinted here.

I am writing to you about incidences my group witnessed at the fifth and sixth stations of Mount Fuji in August. Tourists can travel on horseback between these two stations. During our ascent and descent, I witnessed what I would consider animal cruelty towards these horses:

• Horses tied up in a restricted fashion (some facing the wall, unable to see anything around them or interact with humans and other horses alike).

• Many horses with white foam around their mouths, possibly from dehydration, as I did not see any horse being given water/tied up near an accessible water source

• Horses tied up in direct sunlight.

R.M. also says that some of the horses seemed too thin, and that she saw a staff member hitting one.

The horses are managed by the Fuji-Yoshida Riding Association, and the staff that work there are not the owners. It seems that the horses are owned by various individuals, who allow them to be used for the tourists.

The Fuji-Tobu Public Health Center handles animal welfare issues in this area of Yamanashi Prefecture. Lifelines spoke to a helpful official from the health center, who also happens to be a vet. He went to investigate matters and reported back. He was willing to be interviewed for this article but asked not to be named.

According to the vet, there are currently 19 horses at the site on Mount Fuji. Sixteen of them are working horses, taking tourists on their backs or pulling carts. These horses are rotated on a regular basis, with some waiting for tourists while others rest at a stable some distance away, out of the public eye.

The remaining three are elderly “retired” horses that are no longer used to carry people. They are there primarily for socialization, as their owners want them to spend time with other horses for companionship. The vet checked with the manager of the association, and it seems that the animals in the photos supplied by R.M. were these elderly horses.

“They are rather gaunt in appearance but this is due to advanced age and is normal for elderly horses,” says the vet. He was unsure why the three retired horses would be with the working horses rather than relaxing down at the stables. “As they are older animals, perhaps the owners instructed the staff to keep an eye on them.”

On the issue of not appearing to have access to water at the station, the vet said there is ample water down at the stable for the horses that are off-duty. I asked why there didn’t seem to be any for the horses at the station, and he said they are probably offered water from buckets as needed, and that perhaps having a large water trough was not considered aesthetically pleasing, with the tourists being there.

The vet said that the foam around the horses’ mouths was likely to be spittle, which is common and not an issue for concern. He also spoke to the staff about the hitting incident and warned them to be careful.

“In my opinion, I didn’t see anything that constitutes inhumane treatment with relation to the horses at Mount Fuji,” he says. “Since Mount Fuji is now a World Heritage site and more tourists are visiting from overseas, we certainly need to consider various opinions about the treatment of animals in the tourist industry. If visitors have any questions about the horses, the chairperson of the Riding Association invites them to speak to the staff.”

I was unable to find a publicly listed phone number for the Fuji-Yoshida Horse Riding Association. After I contacted the local city office, the chairman of the association allowed them to share his cellphone number with Lifelines, but despite repeated attempts, I was unable to connect with him.

We’ll wrap up with one final thought from the vet at the Fuji-Tobu Public Health Center.

“Some foreign tourists may be unaware of this, but the Fuji-Yoshida area has a culinary tradition of eating horse meat,” he said. “It might sound cruel, but some owners view horses as a source of income, and when the animal reaches the end of its useful working life it may be eaten. With this in mind, the elderly horses on Mount Fuji might be considered lucky to be enjoying their retirement.”

Thank you to animal rescue volunteer Maho Cavalier for her help with the research for this article. Kiwi Louise George Kittaka has been based in Japan since she was 20. In the ensuing years she has survived PTA duty for three kids in the Japanese education system and singing live on national TV for the NHK Nodo Jiman show, among other things. Your comments and questions:

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