Pets are big business in Japan. Pet shops can command six-figure fees for pedigree puppies and kittens, and goods and services for the pampered pooch or pussycat abound. Peeking into a fashionable baby carriage in the streets of Tokyo, you are just as likely to encounter a tiny beribboned dog as a human infant.

While some animals are living the life of Riley, others lead a miserable existence on the margins of society. Female animals turn out litter after litter at “puppy mills” to supply pet shops, while their progeny are disposed of when they outlive their sell-by date, simply growing too old to be considered “cute.”

Some animals — even those sought-after pedigree breeds — end up homeless when their owners grow too old to care for them, or as in the case in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, owners have to move and leave their pets behind. The pound is usually the last stop for such animals. While some efforts are made to re-home, the majority of the unfortunate cats and dogs arriving at the pound are put to death by carbon dioxide gas.

At the other end of the spectrum are Japan’s animal shelters. In principal, they share the same basic goal of taking in unwanted animals and attempting to find new homes, but the scale of operations and the philosophies and practices of the shelters can vary widely.

Several months ago a reader from Tokyo contacted The Japan Times about a shelter catering primarily to older dogs. A petition and website calling for the shelter’s closure have been set up. Among the issues cited by the proponents of closure are: too many dogs for the size and scale of the shelter, insufficient efforts to re-home animals, and artificially prolonging the lives of dogs with terminal illnesses.

The shelter in question is SALA (Save Animals, Love Animals), located in the western Tokyo bed town of Fuchu. By dint of its location, SALA has attracted a number of non-Japanese eager to help animals, and over the years various foreign nationals have donated their time and money to SALA, as well as adopted some of the dogs. In recent months, however, things have gone downhill and the tide of goodwill has turned to anger for some of those who formerly supported the shelter’s activities.

SALA is run by Kasumi Tanino. In order to get SALA’s side of the story, repeated efforts were made to contact the shelter by phone at various times of the day, but nobody answered. Eventually I showed up unannounced and was finally able to talk with Tanino, who had been recuperating from an illness. Some volunteers had been taking care of the dogs in her absence. She readily answered questions for this article.

There are currently “around 40” dogs at SALA, and many are middle-aged or elderly with some degree of health issues. According to Tanino, they came to SALA through various channels, including from pounds or other shelters, while a number have been evacuated from Fukushima. SALA has been operating since the late 1980s.

“When my children were small they brought home stray animals, as children often do, and it started from there,” Tanino explains. There is a small clinic adjacent to the house where a trainee vet currently visits on a volunteer basis to do checkups on the shelter dogs and local pets if requested by their owners, as well as a trimming salon nearby.

The shelter operates out of a house in a quiet suburban street. When I arrived and was shown the dogs, my first impression was of a mass of cages, each holding one animal. A volunteer worker was cleaning dishes in the background. SALA used to have a number of paid employees, but times are harder and now Tanino runs the shelter with the assistance of a handful of volunteers who are devoted to the dogs.

Until fairly recently, a number of foreign volunteers, both adults and school students, also went in to walk the dogs on a regular basis, but most have pulled out in protest at what they say are bad management practices. Undoubtedly the biggest victims in this scenario are the dogs, who have fewer opportunities to get exercise.

I asked how many times a day the dogs are walked and was told “three times a day,” but based on the number of dogs in relation to humans, that would seem a Herculean task.

What exactly has gone wrong? Linda Hayakawa is a librarian at the American School in Japan and leader of the school’s Animal Advocates Club. ASIJ students had long been volunteering as dog walkers at SALA when Hayakawa took over as club coordinator three years ago.

“From the beginning the cages seemed too small … a cage just six inches bigger than the dog itself,” Hayakawa says. “I assumed that it was temporary just until the dogs were adopted, but then I found out that some of the dogs had been there for years.”

Despite her misgivings, Hayakawa wanted to help the dogs and continued bringing in groups of students, as well as volunteering at SALA in her free time.

“We even had the kids making posters and a video at school to publicize SALA’s cause. However, when I saw adoption chances being repeatedly passed up, I grew disillusioned,” Hayakawa says. After one particularly fraught incident over a failed adoption, the school decided to sever ties with SALA.

Tanino says that her ultimate goal is to make the best match for each of the dogs at SALA, but finding the right person is not an easy task.

“We are short-staffed, which is why the dogs have to spend so much time in their cages,” she says. “If people are concerned, I suggest they could take the initiative and volunteer to take the dogs for a walk and thus reduce their stress.”

She notes that taking the dogs to adoption events is not easy as she does not drive, and currently relies on pet taxi services to transport the animals.

Tanino’s dissenters say she artificially prolongs the life of some of the dogs in her care with chronic illnesses. To some extent, cultural differences come into play. While it is common for pet owners in the West to opt for euthanasia when a pet becomes very ill, many Japanese vets are still very reluctant to put animals down, citing the need to respect life.

When I visited, I saw one such dog, John, lying on a baby’s bed wearing a diaper. I asked if it wouldn’t be kinder to euthanize such animals, with the time and money put into their care better used in efforts to re-home the adoptable animals.

Tanino disagrees. “I’m not totally against euthanasia,” she says. “But if the dog still wants to eat — as John does — and isn’t in pain, then I won’t do it. I’m committed to caring for these dogs for the rest of their lives. I won’t take the easy way out.”

While Japan has basic laws in place to regulate businesses and charities that deal with animals, animal welfare advocates say they are simply too weak and not properly enforced.

Former SALA volunteer Mioko Honda is a licensed vet who used to work in one of the government’s animal welfare centers. “Even when there are clearly problems, it is very difficult for the authorities to close down a pet shop or shelter,” she says.

“Another issue is that employees at the government animal centers are constantly rotated, and change is incredibly slow to happen,” Honda says. “And then people tend to say, ‘Well, it might not be optimal conditions for the dogs, but it is certainly better than them being killed at the pound or out on the streets.’ “

I spoke to Satoko Kimura in the PR section at the Tama branch of Tokyo’s Animal Protection and Consultation Center. “We are aware of SALA’s activities but we cannot disclose any details to a third party,” she said.

According to Honda, the best course for action for SALA is to reduce the number of dogs to a manageable figure in line with the available resources. She suggests that five — certainly less than 10 — would be optimal under the current circumstances.

Tanino says she is well aware that the shelter is maxed out, and that she is re-homing any dogs for which she can find homes that suit her criteria. “But most of the dogs here are mid-size, mixed breeds, elderly and suffering from some kind of disease or disability. Others have experienced trauma. The ideal is one thing, but the actuality is another.”

Last year Tanino reached out to ARK (Animal Refuge Kansai) about taking some of her dogs. Based in Osaka, ARK was founded in 1990 by Elizabeth Oliver, a Briton who has gone on to become one of the most widely respected voices in animal welfare in Japan. Oliver says she traveled up to Tokyo and, along with other ARK staffers, went to meet Tanino about the transfer, but things inexplicably went pear-shaped after that.

“We asked for a list of dogs, names, ages, sex, etc. and said that ARK would be prepared to take 10 dogs at first, to relieve the pressure on SALA. Finally she reluctantly took us to the back where the dogs were kept in small cages. From then on we had no contact from her, and all we heard was that she not letting any dogs go anywhere, including to ARK,” Oliver recalls.

For her part, Tanino says she took exception to the fact that ARK tried to get her to agree not to take in any more dogs as part of the bargain.

A long-term supporter of SALA, a foreign national who declined to be named in the article, points out Tanino has been making efforts to reduce the number of animals at SALA, having scaled back from over 60 animals several months ago. “But Ms. Tanino is committed to looking after the ones that remain. She said SALA is like the nursing home for dogs in this respect.”

Some of the people interviewed for this article suggested there is a danger of SALA turning into a hoarding situation. Gary Patronek, an assistant professor of veterinary science at Tufts University, who coined the term “animal hoarder” in 1997, has studied the phenomenon in depth.

In an emailed statement to The Japan Times, Patronek notes: “Some and perhaps many of these cases will begin with the best of intentions, with a pattern of rescue followed by adoption. Over time, the adoption part seems to wane and it becomes a rescue-only phenomenon. This spiral of deterioration may be different in different people, but involves varying degrees of lack of insight and perhaps increasing pressures that force the person to rely more and more heavily on their ‘addiction’ to animals.”

Animal rights advocate and former SALA supporter Yuko Nishida says that petitions and calls to authorities will have little effect. “In the case of SALA, all the volunteers would have to quit and things would have to deteriorate to the point where the authorities were fielding complaints before they will step in,” Nishida says.

Such a course of action, however, is unacceptable to the volunteers, who are too devoted to the dogs to give up.

“It is a catch-22 situation. Ms. Tanino has helped some dogs to find homes, but too many are currently languishing there,” says ASIJ’s Hayakawa. “Those of us who supported SALA were doing so because we care about the animals. By withdrawing that support, we are potentially making it hard for the dogs, yet by continuing to support something we don’t feel is ethical, we would be enabling the situation.”

Meanwhile, Tanino is indignant at any insinuation that she displays hoarding behavior.

“The term ‘hoarder’ has been used too often by people who have no idea what they are talking about,” she says. “All I can do is to keep on working till the end, not giving up on my search for (adoptive) families, right down to the very last dog.”

NPO SALA Network: www.salanetwork.or.jp/e_index.html. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp