There’s no doubt that the Japanese love their pets – walk around Tokyo and you’ll see no end of pampered pooches trotting around in little outfits, sticking their heads out of handbags, or even being pushed around in prams, and YouTube is positively packed with videos of cats doing adorable things. But behind this, there’s a darker side to Japan’s pet craze. Prepare to get a bit weepy.
Inside the “dream boxes”
In Japan, pets go in and out of fashion just like clothes; one season huskies are in, the next it’s miniature dachshunds. For many people a dog isn’t for life, it’s until they get bored of it or it becomes unfashionable. This means that each year hundreds of thousands of pets are abandoned by their owners.
Each year thousands of these unwanted animals are taken by animal control to so-called “dream boxes”, where they face an inhumane death by gassing. These gas chambers are not back-alley businesses, but are sanctioned by the government Department of Public Health (hokensho) to deal with the stray dog and cat problem. And it’s not just the strays rounded up on the street that are sent here; Japan has very few rehoming shelters, so when someone hands their pet over to a hokensho-run “animal welfare centre” it’s often the dream boxes where they’ll end up. Death by gassing is often a cruel process, with different sized animals being given the same gas exposure, meaning that the larger animals may take up to 30 minutes to die.
According to the Ministry of the Environment, in 2010 around 205,000 cats and dogs were officially “culled” across Japan. That’s over 500 innocent animals per day.
The “legal basis for culling” is in article 6, clause 9 of the Rabies Prevention Law which states that stray dogs must be impounded and disposed of within a set period of time if no owner comes forward. It’s even built into the Act of Welfare and Management of Animals first enacted in 1973, which was more designed to protect people from animals than animals from acts of cruelty from humans. Article 35 states that “The prefectural and city governments…must take a cat or dog when asked to do so by that animal’s owner.” There’s no provision for how they should treat the animal after taking it, and so such animals go straight to the pound, and then on to the gas boxes.
Kumamoto City Animal Welfare Centre
In the midst of this, one particular animal shelter has resolved to fight against the prevailing attitude. When Kumamoto City Animal Welfare Centre first decided on the policy in 2002, it seemed like an impossibility. Since then, their various initiatives aimed at a zero culling policy have been gaining attention from policy-makers and pet owners alike.
In 2001 a new head took over the centre, who had a different idea about how to run things. When he talked with each staff member individually, he found that they were all harbouring the same thoughts – they didn’t want to have to put down animals any longer. After a brain storming session the conclusion was reached: everyone was in favour of a zero-kill policy.
Pushing the boundaries
In attempting to change attitudes, the staff have taken on a fairly thankless task.
When an owner brings in a pet, they don’t take it in easily like most centres. They ask them to remember the time they’ve spent with their dog or cat, and ask them if they’ve really tried seriously to find a new owner. One staff member explains, “We don’t want to give local people a bad impression. But we do want the people who come to us to get rid of their animals to leave feeling bad about it. Sometimes we might even be able to change their minds.
“We don’t mind being hated. Even if it comes to tears, we need to ask the owners to think about what they are doing.” Sometimes there are disputes, but if the staff persevere they’re sometimes successful at persuading the owner to take their pet back home with them and give them another chance.
One time a man in his 60s brought in his corgi, saying, “He chews everything, I can’t keep him.” The dog’s original owner, his son, had moved abroad and the dog was nothing but a nuisance to his new guardian. The man was of the opinion that “if the dog does something bad, it’s natural to punish him.” In response, the staff asked him, “Isn’t it your son who’s taught him it’s OK to chew things? If it’s your son’s fault, why should this dog pay for it with his life?”
Another time a girl came in who was moving to an apartment that didn’t allow pets. The centre’s response was that, “If you bring your dog here, he will lose his life. You need to fulfil your last responsibility as his owner, and find him a new owner.” But the girl explained that she had asked about 30 of her friends and colleagues, and no one would take him. They pressed on. “Isn’t it unreasonable that this dog should die just because you couldn’t find an owner out of those 30 people?”
These are the kinds of questions they ask owners who come to abandon their pets. They may seem harsh, but surely upsetting a few people is a small price to pay if it saves the lives of innocent animals. In the process, perhaps Japanese people will start to have more consideration for our furry friends, and a more responsible attitude will flourish.
The shelter also tries to make the animal’s lives there as comfortable as possible while they await a new owner. The dogs aren’t shut in cages, each one gets its own run outside in the sunshine. Outside each kennel is an information sheet with the dogs’ names and sex. And at feeding time they each get their own bowl, so the food is distributed equally.
A long road ahead
In 2002 the shelter put down 393 cats and dogs, but by 2006 this had decreased to 59, and in 2009 it was just seven.
From their statistics it is clear that, while the number of dogs they took into their care was generally unchanged, the number of unwanted dogs they took on from owners dropped sharply. In 2002, 242 unwanted pets were brought to the shelter, but this had fallen to just 32 in 2011. However, there is still the huge problem of stray animals, which places increasing strain on the centre’s facilities.
Unfortunately, it seems like the centre hasn’t been able to achieve their target. Last year they only put down one animal, but their housing has reached its limit and it has became unavoidable for them to make the “distressing decision” to euthanise on some occassions. There are also concerns over infectious diseases due to overcrowding. Cute kittens and puppies can often be rehomed, but it’s extremely difficult to find a new owner for an adult cat or dog.
The centre says that together with the efforts of our volunteers, they are doing our best to save these animals lives, commenting, “We want owners to realise that they have a responsibility to their animals, and not to abandon them.”
Hopefully the attitudes of this centre will spread to others, and perhaps we will start to see a shift in attitudes towards pet ownership in Japan and a reduction in unnecessary suffering and deaths.
If you’d like to find out more about animal welfare in Japan, or help the cause in some way, please visit the following websites:
Animal Rescue Kansai – Founded by a foreigner back in 1990, ARK is one of Japan’s foremost animal charities.
Japan Cat Network – Also founded by foreigners, JCN has been helping Japan’s cats since 1993.