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Saving Unwanted Pets

Aya Hamashima

Oct. 15, 2015

Japanese people face the urgent issue of an ageing society. But it's not only people who suffer. The problem extends to the abandonment of pets. More animals are left behind as owners become too old to care for them, or pass away.

Nearly 130,000 animals in Japan were put down in fiscal 2013, although the number is falling. But one community has decided to entirely stop euthanizing cats and dogs.

South of Tokyo, Kanagawa prefecture holds a pet adoption event together with animal welfare groups every month. It's rare for a municipality in Japan to stage such an activity.

"I knew there were many dogs at the shelter," said one visitor. "If I'm going to get another pet, I want to adopt one of them."

Another visitor said, "I've heard of many cases of euthanasia, so I came to see what these dogs are like, instead of going to a pet shop."

The Kanagawa Prefectural Animal Protection Center is responsible for animals in all parts of the prefecture, except its major cities such as Yokohama and Kawasaki.

The shelter cares for about 50 dogs and 20 cats. Despite a fall in the number of pets entering shelters, there's been an increase at this center. A third of the animals are here because their owners passed away or became too old to take care of them.

In general, centers like this put-down abandoned animals after a certain period. But in Kanagawa, euthanasia is no longer an option. Instead, the prefecture entrusts animal welfare groups with most of the pets that come into its care.

Dozens of rescue groups are registered with the center. One of them is called Animal Protection. They often take in old and sick dogs.

Sixteen-year-old Komachi was left alone after her elderly owner died. The dog was already in poor health. Vets conduct checkups at a discounted rate. Komachi was riddled with maggots and fleas.

The group says many of the dogs' condition suggests they may have had years of neglect.

After the checkup, it's time for a trim. The groomer provides the service for free. It takes half a day to clean up a group of dogs.

Days later, the dogs are brought to volunteers who agree to temporarily look after them. The caregivers receive supplies from the group. Some of the dogs don't trust humans and are aggressive. In such cases, they get extra care and training while staying with the volunteers. Eventually the animals will go to an adoption event to find a permanent home.

These team efforts by center staff and volunteers have paid off. They haven't put-down any dogs for two years. The center also avoided euthanizing any cats in fiscal 2014. No other municipalities have been able to match the feat.

Some of the dogs aren't adopted. But volunteers like Mariko Hamada are ready to take care of the aged or sick animals until the end, even if it means spending her own money for the extra treatment.

Hamada takes care of 13 dogs. She says when the dogs need extra medical care she will spend from a few hundred dollars to 2,000 dollars per dog.

She still looks after the remains of those dogs that ended up dying in her care. Without the dedication of these volunteers, it would be impossible for Kanagawa to avoid euthanasia.

"These dogs have been neglected or abused earlier in their lives," says Hamada. "I want them to learn at the end of their lives that humans aren't all scary."

Ironically, this success in protecting lives has created another issue. More owners who want to be rid of their pets are trying to bring them in, as Kanagawa's zero euthanasia record becomes more well-known.

One owner brought in her 13-year-old dog. She said it was too aggressive. Both the prefecture and volunteers say it will be hard to maintain the zero euthanasia policy unless public awareness changes.

"Our record of zero euthanasia can easily break down anytime," says Hideyuki Hiramoto, a volunteer. "The reality is tough. Dogs are brought in every day. We can't just sit by if we want to change the situation."

The local government also recognizes the dilemma. "We can't keep counting too much on volunteers," says Tsuyoshi Koike, Director of the Kanagawa Prefectural Animal Protection Center. "The situation requires a long term solution, not a short one. We must do something to put less of a burden on the volunteer groups."

Komachi, one of the dogs that came into the group's care, died after her health deteriorated. She was the victim of a pet boom in an ageing society.

"No volunteers like us would be needed if people didn't abandon their pets," says Hamada. "More and more people, without making any effort of their own, just leave their dogs at the center, assuming they will find a new owner. But the dog feels very sad and anxious when it is abandoned by people who it assumed were its family. I want people to think about that."


Aya Hamashima joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: We now know the situation is quite serious. Our aging society is already an issue, but it's created another one. It's a difficult problem to solve because pets are often the close companions for these older people.

Hamashima: Yes, that's right. Records from 2013 show about 60 percent of people who abandoned pets were over 60 years old. Pet protection centers and rescue groups often have guidelines for the sort of people who can adopt. For example, some don't allow people over 60 to adopt puppies. But pet shops don't have these limits. So, it's not easy to maintain certain regulations.

Shibuya: And now it seems the "no-euthanasia" achievement is being taken advantage of. People feel less guilty about bringing in their animals. If there's an increase in abandoned animals, would that make it difficult to keep the euthanasia number at zero?

Hamashima: Unfortunately yes, in some cases. Actually one municipality had to start putting down abandoned animals again, even after it achieved zero euthanasia in a certain year.

Beppu: So what are officials at Kanagawa Prefecture doing to tackle this problem?

Hamashima: They plan on building a new facility at the center within 3 years. They say there will be a dog grooming space and more medical care. This should help support the work of the volunteers. So Aki, you have adopted dogs.

Beppu: What is your take on the situation?

Shibuya: Well, Aya and her team came to film my dogs. I have three. One was said to have aggression issues and the other one has been diagnosed with liver cancer. But you know to eliminate euthanasia at animal centers, all animals have to be rescued. I just hope that I can show an example of how adopted older dogs can become great companions.

Hamashima: Kanagawa Prefecture and the volunteer groups have shifted their campaign from "no euthanasia" to "no abandonment." It will still take a lot of effort to achieve this goal -- to encourage people to take care of their pets.