When the documentary filmmaker Motoharu Iida was asked by an animal-loving elderly woman to make a film to save the lives of abandoned cats and dogs, he was not sure what he could do.

But with a little research, Iida soon found that 353,098 cats and dogs were disposed of — killed, that is — by local authorities in Japan in fiscal 2006. To his horror, he realized that meant almost 1,000 dogs and cats a day were being put to death.

“I was shocked, and decided to make that issue the theme of the film,” Iida told The Japan Times recently.

At present, abandoned and stray cats and dogs are sent to animal-management centers run by local governments, so Iida asked several centers to let him film their activities. Most refused, but finally three centers granted him access, he said.

Although staff at all these centers make efforts to locate the animals’ owners and also attempt to rehome them through such initiatives as match-making events, most cats and dogs are left there with nowhere to go. They are then put to death by gassing with carbon dioxide, according to Iida, who described how he “watched the process of gas poisoning and heard the sounds the animals made when they were writhing.”

The animals aren’t the only ones who suffer. The staff of these centers lament over what they do and can even face criticism from their neighbors, Iida said.

His film, “Inu to Neko to Ningen to” (“Dogs, Cats & Humans”), clearly shows there are a lot of friendly dogs, pedigree animals and kittens awaiting this fate in the centers. “Many people don’t want to hear about the sad reality,” Iida said. “I understand their feelings, so I didn’t want to make a film just pointing accusing fingers.”

Iida also spent several months documenting the work of the Kanagawa Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a private shelter in Yokohama where no healthy animals are ever killed.

There, he saw a lot of cats and dogs with unique personalities, including a mixed-breed dog named Shiroemon that was very friendly but quite undisciplined, as he had always been unwanted and thus remained at the shelter. However, the staff were trying hard to train him to behave himself so they would have more chance of finding him a new owner.

Every day, Iida saw many people bringing pets they could no longer keep to the center. One of those was a woman who could no longer afford the upkeep of her two dogs and was in tears when she left them.

Beside caring for the animals and trying to rehome them, Iida was told at the shelter that its staff also surgically spayed and neutered more than 1,000 stray cats a year to control their breeding. That’s because the shelter — which relies on voluntary donations — cannot afford to keep all the stray cats it receives and has to release many in places where they will be able to live uncared-for lives.

Among the many wrenching parts of making his film, though, Iida said it was heartwarming to realize there are a lot of individuals who voluntarily save the lives of abandoned animals. One of those he met was Osamu Konishi, a photographer, and his wife, Michiko. For many years, the couple have taken care of stray cats, including some abused ones, along the bank of the Tama River that runs between Okutama and Haneda in Tokyo — and Konishi has taken pictures of them to show the public the reality of their situation.

“I believe their efforts have great meaning because the life of every animal has value,” Iida said.

To Japan’s shame, however, Iida’s film shows that the value of a pet animal’s life is held in much higher regard by people in Britain than by the average Japanese.

Iida went to Britain in July and August 2007 and visited some private shelters for abandoned animals in London and its suburbs. In one of those shelters, Iida was very touched to meet a boy who was visiting in order to become the owner of a dog, and who told him, “The dog has had a hard life, so I want to make him happy.”

In Britain, only 7,743 out of 101,586 stray dogs taken into care were killed in 2006, according to Dogs Trust, the country’s largest canine-welfare charity. In the same year, 117,969 dogs were killed in Japan — 15 times more than the British toll.

To some extent, Iida explained, that huge disparity stems from the fact that in Britain it is common for people wanting a pet to take a cat or dog from a shelter; while the shelters themselves typically attract far more financial support from the public than those in Japan.

Nonetheless, the situation of dumped cats and dogs in Japan is gradually improving. The number destroyed by local authorities fell to 310,457 in fiscal 2007 — around a 40,000 drop from the previous year, according to ALIVE, an animal- rights organization based in Tokyo.

Among other groups that care for abandoned pets and strive to rehome them is Osaka-based ARK. The donations- and membership-funded organization has rehomed 2,482 dogs and 962 cats since it was founded in 1991, according to the group (which has a regular corner in The Japan Times on Saturdays).

Iida said he hopes that more people here will start to contribute to animal shelters or do volunteer activities at such places — including undertaking efforts to find new owners for the animals there.

“It is also important to let your friends and acquaintances know the reality of dumped animals,” the film director said. “I want everyone to think what they can do to save the lives of abandoned pets.”

“Inu to Neko to Ningen to” is now showing at Uplink in Shibuya, Tokyo, and elsewhere. For more information, visit www.inunekoningen.com

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