Next month, the environment ministry and the health ministry will jointly implement a new law that provides subsidies to local government health centers for the feeding of abandoned or captured dogs and cats. The money is designed to make it possible for these centers to take care of the animals an extra three days, which presumably gives the facilities a little more time to find homes for them before they have to be put down.

The logic behind the law is based on the fact that most animals are destroyed within two or three days of arriving at public-health centers, but animal protection groups have complained about the subsidy. One pet-shelter professional wrote a letter to the Asahi Shimbun last month saying that it makes more sense to give the ¥350 million annually earmarked for the program directly to private animal shelters, since public-health centers are not really set up to promote pet adoptions. Three more days is not going to make much difference: the vast majority of these animals will still be destroyed. Private animal shelters, on the other hand, tend to keep their charges indefinitely and actively look for people to adopt them. In addition, many spay or neuter their animals so that once they are adopted they will not produce more animals.

Nevertheless, the law points to increased public awareness of the situation surrounding abandoned pets in Japan. Since the turn of the millennium the annual number of dogs and cats put down in public facilities dropped from about 600,000 at around the turn of the millennium to about 330,000 in 2006.

Small dogs

The greater drop has been for dogs. A recent online Mainichi Shimbun article about a shelter that assists public-health centers in finding homes for abandoned animals pointed out that the increased popularity of smaller breeds of dogs over the past 10 years has had a positive effect. Families are more likely to keep smaller dogs indoors and thus form closer attachments to them. Moreover, it is easier to find new homes for abandoned dogs if they are smaller in size. Previously, the most popular breeds, like Siberian Huskies and Golden Retrievers, were large dogs that didn’t fit urban and suburban Japanese lifestyles.

Pedigree is still important to Japanese dog lovers. No one, it seems, is really interested in mutts, and according to a recent TBS special on volunteerism that included a segment on animal shelters, they are extremely difficult to find homes for. Japanese people usually call dogs of no particular breed zasshu (hybrid), which carries a negative connotation. Consequently, shelters now describe such dogs with the English word “mix,” probably because it sounds a little more exotic. A few weeks ago the weekly TV Tokyo pet variety show “Pochi and Tama” went to Australia to report on the boom in specially designed mixed breeds. The celebrities in the studio expressed outright shock that someone would actually blend breeds on purpose.

This focus on pure blood is one of the things that separates dog people from cat people. There are thousands of Web sites in Japan devoted to dogs and cats. The majority of dog sites, however, deal with specific breeds, while cat sites are just about cats. Alley cats are especially popular. By far, the most famous feline in Japan right now is Hatchan, a black-and-white male whose Web site (hatchan-nikki.com) attracts thousands of hits every day. Hatchan’s owners have made a fortune on photo books and “personal” appearances in the Kansai area, where they live. Hatchan’s origins are as humble as can be. When he was picked up as a stray in a nearby park, one of his ears already had the wedge-shaped nip indicating he had been neutered.

Captured cats

The nipped ear is the physical mark of the TNR movement, which has become mainstream among cat fanciers. TNR stands for “trap, neuter, release,” and refers to the practice of capturing strays, bringing them to veterinarians for neutering or spaying, and then releasing them again. TNR spread through what can only be called an underground movement: squadrons of middle-aged neko obasan (cat ladies) who habitually patrol parks in their neighborhoods feeding stray cats at their own expense. Invariably, such ad hoc groups incur the wrath of neighbors who find stray cats less than cute and regard them as pests. As a result, these women developed TNR as an adjunct to the feeding regimen, also at their own expense.

TNR points to the fact that cat lovers operate outside the usual commercial systems associated with dogs. They tend to pick up cats off the street rather than buy them in pet shops, or they obtain them from other cat lovers through networks. Another popular Web site is Kuruneko Yamato (blog.goo.ne.jp/kuru0214), which is run by an anonymous graphic artist who started a blog for the purpose of finding homes for stray cats. She’s been so successful that the cartoons she draws chronicling her adoption activities were recently published in a book called “Kuruneko Yamato,” which is already enjoying its second print run.

The canine world doesn’t have a Hatchan of its own, so “mixes” will remain in the dog house, as it were. That white dog called Otosan in the popular TV commercial series for Softbank might have made the media safe for mongrels since he seemed to belong to no known breed, but then someone pointed out that he is actually a pure Hokkaido-ken, a type of hunting dog.

For that reason it would be great if Crown Prince Naruhito showed off his two dogs, Pippi and Mari, more often. According to the official story, pregnant, homeless Pippi wandered onto the palace grounds more than 10 years ago and there gave birth to Mari. The story is a little difficult to believe. Security around the palace is very tight and you almost never see stray dogs in central Tokyo. But the important thing is that the Crown Prince adopted the two canines. They even figure in the official portrait: The future royal family of Japan posing with two mutts.