Pet ownership in Japan has exploded over the past decade, and it is now believed that the number of cats and dogs in Japan exceeds the number of children.
That’s why you’ll likely find crowds cooing at the high-priced kittens and puppies in pet store windows across the country. According to a recent study by Anicom Insurance, dog owners in Japan spend an average of ¥300,000 per dog while cat owners pay ¥160,000 per cat.
Despite these numbers, there are still plenty of pets who don’t have access to dog strollers and Instagram stardom. In fact, Japan’s pet population faces many problems, ranging from diseases caused by overbreeding and inbreeding to neglect and mass gassing of animals as part of animal control measures.
Fortunately, there are organizations that want to help. Founded in 2006 by Canadian Susan Mercer, HEART Tokushima is a Shikoku-based animal rescue center that began when Mercer adopted a cat she found abandoned outside a convenience store. Obtained NPO status in 2010, the animal center aims to reduce the number of stray dogs and cats through sterilization or neutering.
“We started HEART 15 years ago and at that time there were no other shelters or safe houses in our area,” says Mercer, who splits her time between the shelter, a sterilization clinic and teaching. . “Now there are several rescues,” she continues, adding that Japanese people are now more aware of the possibility of adopting an animal rather than buying one.
Mercer and her husband, Hitoshi Tojo, are the driving force behind the organization, which has grown with the support of local and international volunteers.
The increase in the number of pet owners could indicate that pets are purchased on impulse, with little or no knowledge of animal needs or breed characteristics. This can lead to unwanted pets that are often abandoned or turned over to animal organizations such as HEART.
Animals cared for by animal control in Japan have only a slim chance of being rehomed, with about 80% of unhoused animals gassed to death as a group; Statistics from the Ministry of the Environment for 2019 show that 27,108 dogs and 5,635 cats were killed this way in Japan. This figure is decreasing every year, but remains high compared to other developed countries.
It’s not all bad news, according to Mercer, “80% of the animals that have come to HEART in the past two years are animal control rescues.” And she believes education is key, “The ‘five freedoms’ are barely known and there is a lack of knowledge about animal welfare.”
The freedoms she refers to were first formalized by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979 and describe five aspects of animal control: freedom from hunger or thirst; faintness; pain, injury or illness; fear and distress; and the freedom to express the most normal forms of behavior.
“There are two extremes: treating pets like dolls or baby humans and not giving them an outlet to express normal behaviors for their species, and the ‘no kill’ movement,” she says. “Compassionate euthanasia is not yet widely accepted and sometimes even frowned upon. This has resulted in many instances of sick and dangerous animals being stored or hoarded.
Mercer thinks one of the larger issues with animal care in Japan is the loose regulations around breeding and operating pet stores.
For HEART and other relief groups, funding is a major challenge. A voluntary organization that receives no government support, it depends solely on donations and grants from private companies.
“We have four employees, because the number of volunteers to help us care for the animals is always lacking,” explains Mercer.
The best way to help the cause, according to Mercer, is to donate to a reputable shelter or rescue, volunteer, adopt or foster and – perhaps most importantly – spread the word. . And for anyone considering becoming a pet owner, her advice is to think it through carefully, first.
“Look carefully at your life situation and lifestyle, and find a match that’s right for you,” she says.
For more information, visit HEART Tokushima at www.heart-tokushima.com.
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