Back in 1990, while taking a stroll along the Tama River, photographer Osamu Konishi came upon a surreal scene: dozens of cats sitting amicably and quietly on the branches of a tree, almost like apples waiting to be picked, as well as on the ground below.
When Konishi went home and told his wife, Michiko, she didn’t believe him. So he took her to the spot the next day to see for herself, except this time there was a man feeding the strays.
They decided to help him.
Since that first encounter, the Konishis have been taking care of the Tama River cats every day for 24 years. Osamu’s routine includes daily patrols along sections of both sides of the river, which starts in Yamanashi Prefecture and stretches for 138 km, touching 22 municipalities in Tokyo and Kanagawa.
Besides carrying around 80 tins and 7 kg of dry cat food by bicycle, the couple also administer first aid to injured cats they find.
The couple do all this on their own, without aid from any organization.
“With very close observation, around 80 percent of cat injuries can be cured on the spot with a first-aid kit and medications,” Konishi said. “But the rest of them, if we manage to catch them we bring them to local vets who can treat them at a reasonable cost.”
His wife meanwhile feeds milk to kittens they have rescued. Since the immature felines need milk every two hours, she hasn’t been getting enough sleep recently, Konishi said. The couple are currently raising two kittens; three of their siblings recently died.
A few of the abandoned cats, as well as some dogs, are looked after by homeless people living near the Tama River, the photographer said. Some of them treat the strays as family members, he added. At least 1,000 people are known to be living in tents and huts along the Tama River, many hidden in the weeds.
Last year, Konishi published a book of photographs about the riverside cats titled “Tamagawa Neko Monogatari” (which means “Stories of the Tama River Cats”). Most abandoned cats quickly die from malnutrition and illness, he said.
The book captures the fates of these cats, highlighting the neglect and cruelty they often suffer at the hands of humans.
Of the countless cats he has encountered and cared for, one they named Renma sticks out in his memory. Renma was the undisputed boss of a group, known as a “clowder,” of 23 cats.
“There are people who intentionally unleash their dogs to chase the cats along the Tama River. One day I saw a huge Kishu dog hunting one of Renma’s cats,” Konishi said. “Amidst all the chaos I saw Renma heroically charging toward the hound and biting its nose, till the dog tucked its tail between its legs.
“Renma never lost a fight with any dogs, be it a hound or a terrier. The owners would often find their dogs fleeing with ripped ears or a bleeding nose. Renma was indeed a giant cat with lots of scars, but he never retreated and kept on fighting to protect his cats.”
Two people eventually killed Renma and his cats using poisoned food, Osamu said.
“An old lady who had long cared for Renma’s clowder saw a young couple, presumably in their 20s, giving food to Renma’s cats,” he said. “Renma had his food after his clowder finished eating, and the following morning the lady saw half of the cats dying, shaking and foaming at the mouth.
“The couple returned a few days later, and when the old lady saw them she told them to get lost. The following morning, 20 more cats were found dead by poisoning on the other side of the river.”
Renma is not the only cat to be victimized. As described in the book, they have been stabbed, kicked and scalded by boiling water by people holding barbecues along the river. The book, however, focuses on how the cats strive to survive, including some of their rare friendships with marmots, raccoons and hares, which also make the riverbanks their habitat.
Konishi says pet shops are the root cause of the cats’ misery and that he would love to see them abolished.
“Pet shops and some irresponsible breeders merchandize the lives of animals like products. What makes them so different from fish sellers?” he asked. “So many people buy pets when they are cute and abandon them when they are not needed.
“As a result, the Tama River is now the final destination for pets abandoned in Tokyo and Kanagawa, a dumping ground where the pet shops and their customers get rid of their stock.
“Tama River cats can’t speak, but they have taught me how arrogant and deceitful we humans can be. I am deeply embarrassed by this.”
Osamu Konishi’s blog (in Japanese), including more photos, can be found at www10.ocn.ne.jp/~kabuto/ .