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Pet ownership in Japan has boomed in the past decade, and it’s now thought that the number of cats and dogs in Japan outnumber children.

That’s why you’re likely to find a crowd cooing over the high-priced kittens and puppies in the windows of pet stores across the country. According to a recent study by Anicom Insurance, dog owners in Japan lavish a yearly average of ¥300,000 per pooch while cat owners shell out ¥160,000 per cat.

Despite those numbers, there are still a lot of animals who don’t get access to dog strollers and Instagram stardom. In fact, Japan’s pet population faces numerous issues, from disease caused by over-breeding and inbreeding to the neglect and gassing of animals en masse as part of animal control measures.

Thankfully, there are organizations that want to help. Founded in 2006 by Canadian Susan Mercer, HEART Tokushima is a Shikoku-based animal rescue center that started life when Mercer adopted a cat she found abandoned outside a convenience store. Awarded NPO status in 2010, the animal center aims to reduce the numbers of stray dogs and cats through spaying or neutering.

“We began HEART 15 years ago and at that time there were no other rescues or shelters in our area,” explains Mercer, who splits her time between the shelter, a spay clinic and teaching. “Now there are multiple rescues,” she continues, adding that Japanese people are more aware today of the option to adopt a pet rather than buy one.

Mercer and her husband, Hitoshi Tojo, are the driving force behind the organization, which has grown with the support of local and international volunteers.

The rise in pet ownership could be indicative that pets are purchased on impulse, with little to no knowledge of the needs of the animals or the characteristics of the breed. This can lead to unwanted pets that are often abandoned, or handed over to animal organizations such as HEART.

Animals taken in by animal control in Japan have only a small chance of being rehomed, with around 80 percent of unhomed animals distressingly gassed to death in groups; Environment Ministry statistics for 2019 show that 27,108 dogs and 5,635 cats were killed this way in Japan. This figure is decreasing annually, but remains high when compared to other developed countries.

It’s not all bad news, according to Mercer, “80% of the animals that have come to HEART in the past two years are animal control rescues.” And she believes education is key, “The ‘five freedoms’ are barely known and there’s a lack of knowledge about animal welfare.”

The freedoms she is referring to were first formalized by the U.K. Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979 and outline five aspects of animal control: freedom from hunger or thirst; discomfort; pain, injury or disease; fear and distress; and the freedom to express most normal forms of behavior.

“There are two extremes: Treating pets like dolls or baby humans and not giving them an outlet to express normal behaviors for their species, and the ‘no-kill’ movement,” she says. “Compassionate euthanasia is still not widely accepted and sometimes even frowned upon. That has resulted in many cases of warehousing or hoarding of sick and dangerous animals.”

Mercer believes that one of the broader issues related to animal care in Japan are loose regulations when it comes to breeding and operating pet stores.

For HEART, and other rescue groups, funding is a major difficulty. A volunteer organization that receives no government support, it relies solely on donations and grant funding from private companies.

“We have four salaried staff, as the number of volunteers to help us care for the animals is always lacking,” Mercer explains.

The best way to help the cause, according to Mercer, is to donate to a reputable shelter or rescue, volunteer your own time, adopt or foster and — perhaps most importantly — spread the word. And for those who are thinking about becoming a pet owner, her advice is to think about it carefully, first.

“Look carefully at your life circumstances and lifestyle, and find a match that fits,” she says.

For more information, visit HEART Tokushima at www.heart-tokushima.com.

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