The Fate of Lost and Unwanted Pets in Tokyo

Despite its bustle, the city of Tokyo, Japan hides a surprising zest for pets, with almost 1,600 dogs and cats sold every day and treats as well as supplies sitting on the shelves of every convenience store. Despite this, animal welfare has suffered for pets who are no longer under the care of their owners: in the last ten years, over one and a half million pets were put down unnecessarily and currently, around five-hundred dogs and cats suffer the same fate every day. Some blame government-funded and other public organizations, the specialization of pet stores, and a possibility of a popular mentality of pets being viewed as objects. Although fewer pets are euthanized each year, the issue is still widespread throughout Japan.

Shino Ueno, an employee at the pet store Zoo Ebisu in the Shibuya ward, recalls seeing customers who often don’t seem to be informed on the proper care or responsibilities of owning a pet: “I think some people just try to choose a type of look… maybe they just want a pet for style or something, and they don’t know how to take care [of the pet]”. She added that some customers who have purchased a pet at the store she works at have been surprised at the fact that the litter box needs to be changed frequently or that their puppy or kitten will require a special nutrient-packed milk substitute to be mixed in with lukewarm water for the first few weeks. Ueno went on to say that she considers the environment in many pet stores in Tokyo to be somewhat unhealthy, with animals being cramped into tiny, unsanitary spaces. She wonders if this is because of a demand for exclusively young, small and cute animals: “Many people don’t want old pets, and they usually ask for pure breeds” Ueno says. “And when our pets are too old, we must give them away to a shelter.” She explained that most pet stores will give their old animals to the public shelter.

Ueno mentioned that it doesn’t seem to be common, but that she has heard of two or three cases where hunters have gotten rid of their dogs after the hunting season is over and simply get a new, temporary dog for the next season. She believes that, although some things should remain the same, there are several important changes that are necessary for real improvements to happen, saying “high prices (around 200,000–450,000 yen) for very young pets is a good thing because most people will have to think quite hard about if they really want it, but because of this more pets will also be sent to shelters”. Private animal shelters are scarce in Tokyo, with Recontrer Mignon in Shibuya being the the only easily-found (on Google) shelter with physical facilities where people can adopt a lost or unwanted pet. Government-run animal shelters like Tokyo Metropolitan Animal Care and Consultation Center don’t allow for adoption, only letting pet owners who have lost their pet to collect them within a limited time before they are euthanized.

When animals are euthanized at public shelters, the former pets are suffocated with carbon dioxide if they have not been collected or re-homed after one week. This is what Reuters photojournalist Kim-Kyung Hoon discovered when he went to an animal management shelter where one third of the dogs have been dropped off by their owners who do so despite knowing what will happen to their pet. In his article, he writes that the workers at the center feel sad and angered when one of them has to press the button that releases the CO2 into the box the dogs are “herded into”.

Hoon awaited approval to document the animal shelter for over a year. Although it may be moving slowly, there is evidence of improvement as the motivation behind eventually allowing photo and video documentation of the facilities at the shelter was to help raise awareness about the painful end that over 80% of pets in shelters experience.

Jungo Miyachi, a volunteer at Gundog Rescue Companion Animal Club Ichikawa in Chiba, believes that there are a number of both privately organized teams and recently implemented laws which will hopefully make Japan a pet-friendly country not only on the surface but also at its core. One major aspect is the over-breeding of cats and especially dogs, and he says that “it’s now illegal for breeders to dump their dogs at shelters” but also notes that this could in fact push unworthy breeders to discard their dogs in illegal ways. A more fool-proof method, however, seems to be one in which activists and veterinarians work together to prevent the growth of the stray cat population and they do this, Miyachi says, by “catching stray cats, spaying them and then releasing them… some can even be put up for adoption (without a seven-day maximum stay)”.

Japan is no stranger to commonplace systematic animal cruelty; there has been global criticism of a number of Japanese practices, including the Taiji dolphin hunt and whaling controversy. However, the euthanization of stray and unwanted dogs and cats occurs in the heart of Japan’s cities; in Tokyoites’ own backyards. Animal rights organizations continue to campaign and create initiatives to aid this issue.

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