“Please do not mention the name of this place in your article,” the woman begged during an interview. “Please.”

The plea by Kaneko, who also didn’t want her given name used, was not that of someone in danger but that of a volunteer trying to care for hundreds of abandoned cats in a small wooded hill in the Kanto region.

One might ordinarily think she would have a better chance soliciting help if she took her plea public, raising awareness and possibly funds for her activities — but the reality is this option has a dark side.

“More people will come and dump (their unwanted) cats if they read an article about the cats here,” Kaneko said, underscoring that her concerns are not unfounded.

Unfortunately, the proverbial cat is already out of the bag.

Every TV program, magazine article or cat-lover Web site that reports on or carries images of the hundreds of cats living in the forest brings pet owners in waves seeking to discard their felines, she said.

The situation has spun out of control. She and fellow local volunteers have seen at least 200 cats abandoned annually over the past six years in the woods that cover a mere 400 sq. meters.

“It doesn’t matter if your article is about the lovely cats here or the serious plight of the poor abandoned cats,” Kaneko said. “The result would be the same.”

The place, sometimes depicted by the media as a “cat paradise,” is well known among Kanto cat lovers. Hundreds of abandoned felines occupy the small, wooded hill.

Many people might think the animals live a life of fat cats, given the support of cat-loving volunteers and local residents.

But nothing is further from the truth, Kaneko said.

“People only see those cats that are able to walk about because they are relatively healthy,” she said.

Scores of other cats are sick, hiding — or even dead — inside the woods, Kaneko said.

Statistics suggest the plight of Kaneko’s local cats is just the tip of the iceberg.

According to the Environment Ministry, 267,337 abandoned cats and 113,653 dogs were euthanized by local governments in fiscal 2002, when either the original or new owners failed to come forward and take in the animals.

All dogs must be registered with municipalities under the Rabies Prevention Law, and this in turn makes it easier for local governments to hunt down stray or abandoned dogs or track down the registered owners.

But cats fall through the regulatory cracks. The number of felines brought to and put to sleep by local governments far exceeds that of dogs.

In Tokyo, where an estimated 1.16 million cats live, 10,196 cats and 983 dogs were put to sleep by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in fiscal 2002.

Roughly 90 percent of those cats were 3 months old or younger, officials said.

Experts agree that sterilization is necessary if fewer cats are to be put to sleep by authorities.

“As long as authorities (have to) keep killing (abandoned cats and dogs), we should not let them breed,” said Sayoko Yamada, chairman of the Kanagawa Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

She said many people simply do not realize a very simple fact about cats — they reproduce at a much higher rate than dogs.

Cats can mate six months after birth. A female can bear one litter of around five kittens twice a year.

If two male and two female kittens are born each time, and they in turn mate, one pair can theoretically multiply to as many as 54 cats after just 18 months.

Cat owners, however, are not so quick to multiply. Even if people are inclined to want a pet cat, in many cases they are prevented from acquiring one due to physical constraints — such as small housing space, Yamada said.

“There’s a limit to the number of cats people can keep,” she said. “That’s a very simple fact of life.”

Many people who care for cats are meanwhile disinclined to have them sterilized because they feel such a procedure is “unnatural,” even though the animals no longer live in a natural state and must rely on people, given their long history as domesticated pets, Yamada said.

“Some people start keeping kittens because they are cute,” she said. “But in two or three months, the animals grow up and require more attention.”

Toshiko Matsumoto, a resident of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, has been trying to protect abandoned cats for nearly two decades. She now keeps 32 strays and three stray dogs at her home.

Matsumoto’s experience has led her to believe people should not keep cats or dogs as pets unless they are able to care for them from the litter to the grave.

“If a young couple want to adopt a cat, I ask them if they plan to have a baby,” Matsumoto said, adding that the birth of a baby often makes it difficult for cat owners to keep their pets due to such concerns as hygiene.

Kaneko also believes cats and dogs should be treated as family members.

Otherwise, cat-dumping in her forest will never end.

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