A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

A Pet’s Life in Japan in 2011

Better than it used to be, and getting better

Atlanta finds a new home at an adoption event in Osaka, by Animal Refuge Kansai

Zoe Staff Report

When Elizabeth Oliver came to Japan from England, her plan was simply to teach English. That began to change as she saw more and more homeless, injured animals on the streets. She enlisted the help of some friends, and in 1990 put together what is now Animal Refuge Kansai (ARK) – Japan’s largest private animal rescue center.

ARK’s story is typical of the small number of animal rescue organizations around the country. In 1993, David Wybenga and Susan Roberts started the Japan Cat Network to focus on spay/neuter for stray and feral cats. Three years later, Susan Mercer started another spay/neuter program, HEART-Tokushima, for cats and dogs. And the following year Isabella Gallaon-Aoki began an adoption program, the Animal Garden Niigata, that’s supported by a pet boarding “hotel.”

Angelo, adopted from the Japan Cat Network

These largely grassroots groups and a few others have helped propel a new animal protection movement across a country where, along with the growth of Japan’s economy, keeping pets has become increasingly popular in the past 20 years.
Still, humane societies and rescue groups are few and far between. Most people still buy pets from pet stores than adopt from shelters. And spay/neuter programs have yet to take hold in many parts of the country.

Until very recently, the routine at most city and prefecture (county) shelters have been that most animals who are brought in are quickly put down.

In the Tokushima Prefecture (county), for example, where Mercer began her HEART program, 88 percent of abandoned dogs at the Tokushima Animal Welfare Center in 2008 were destroyed – 2,700 in all.

Attitudes are rapidly changing, however. More and more people, especially in the larger cities, are talking about the importance of caring for pets properly and adopting them from shelters. Typical of them is Mika Takahashi, a young Tokyo woman who was quoted in a Reuters news story as saying, “I have these two dogs because someone threw them away, but dogs are living creatures, so it’s similar to murder if you throw them away.”

No-Kill programs take shape

Clover, adopted from HEART-Tokushima

Two years ago, the city of Funabashi, in the Bay of Tokyo, established the first “no-kill” program at its city animal control center. A new shelter was designed in a way that would give better care to the animals and encourage adoption.

“I think we can wipe out the old prison-like image,” Tetsuji Kusa of the city health center told Japan Today when the new center was opened. “We are trying to achieve [a no-kill goal]. We kept one animal for seven months until a new [adoptive home] was found.”

Seeing the success of an initiative like Funabashi’s has prompted the national government to get involved. Last year, the Environment Ministry launched a plan to convert more of the old city pounds into modern shelters that will encourage better care and more adoptions.

Another initiative that’s just getting underway is the new concept of transporting puppies and kittens from shelters that have a surplus to other parts of the country where they’re in short supply. In Tokyo, for example, there’s a high demand for puppies, but few are available at shelters, so people naturally go to the pet store. Meanwhile, in two other prefectures, more than 1,000 puppies are being put down every year.

“There have been problems with the transfer of abandoned animals, including having follow-up checks,” said Fusako Nogami, Director of ALIVE, an animal advocacy organization in Tokyo. “But this becomes better as we build connections between animal protection organizations.”

Poppo, adopted from the Animal Refuge Kansai sanctuary

The growth of the humane movement in Japan is following a pattern that’s typical of how animal protection movements take root. Invariably, it begins with a few individuals starting local rescue efforts. These efforts draw a grassroots following that captures the imagination of more and more people who care about animals. And, sooner or later, government agencies learn that there are great benefits to society from developing humane programs for animals.

After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, Sanae Matsuda, a member of the Japan Animal Welfare Society (JAWS), brought together the Kobe City Animal and Pet Management Center, the city’s veterinary association and local rescuers to launch an adoption effort. Ten years later, roughly 120 animals were being adopted from the center each year. “There remains much room for improvement,” she said at a 2006 conference. “But we will continue to think of better ideas and we will never give up.”

Animal Refuge Kansai (ARK)
Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue & Support (JEARS)
Donate to Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support
Japan Cat Network
Animal Garden Niigata
World Vets
Crisis Response for Japan
Japanese Red Cross
Japan Animal Trust