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Finding Forever Homes

Aki Shibuya

May 6, 2016

A Canadian in southwestern Japan is running one of the largest animal shelters in the country, helping to save scores of abandoned pets from being put down.

As in most parts of the world, people in Japan love their pets. It's one of the few countries where domestic animals outnumber children under 15.

But there's another side to Japan's so-called pet boom. Over 100,000 unwanted cats and dogs were put down in 2014.

A Canadian woman in Tokushima is working on the front line of animal rescue in the country. She's found new homes for around 1,200 abandoned pets so far.

Susan Mercer runs Heart Tokushima, one of the largest animal shelters in Japan, in a mountainous part of Tokushima Prefecture.

She currently cares for around 150 dogs and 80 cats with the help of volunteers.

All the animals in her care have been abandoned. Susan’s goal is to find homes for each and every of them.

"Most of our dogs come in from uncaring homes," Susan says. "I think about 95 percent of the animals we rescue come from a horrible situation: either they're chained outside all day, 24 hours, 365 days a year. We are like the middle ground for their next life of love and to be part of a family forever."

Heart Tokushima's daily routine includes cleaning the kennels and feeding the animals over 50 kilograms of food a day. The dogs need walking too, of course. The operation costs around $11,000 a month. Everything is covered by donations.

Susan’s husband Hitoshi works alongside her. He receives dozens of inquiries every week from people who want to give up their pets.

Animals are constantly coming in. Susan regularly uploads their photos to her blog and to pet-finder websites in the hope of finding them new homes.

A woman from Kyoto has come to pick up a 5-year-old Pomeranian called Matsuko. "She looks so happy!" she says, holding Matsuko in her arms.

Before she can take the dog home, however, she has to sign an adoption agreement. Heart Tokushima checks adopters’ family and home situations through a questionnaire, phone interviews and, sometimes, home visits.

"I heard dogs are put down in some other places, so that gave me the feeling that I wanted to adopt one and give it another opportunity -- a chance to live a full life," Matsuko's new owner says.

Most abandoned pets in Tokushima Prefecture are brought to the local animal welfare center. Many of the dogs and cats brought there have been neglected or abused.

In 2003, the year the center opened, they put down over 10,000 animals -- the highest figure of any Japanese prefecture.

But that number has been decreasing significantly, thanks to their efforts to educate pet owners and the support of rescue groups.

Even so, over 60 percent face being put down around a week after arriving, due to limited space and the cost of keeping them.

Susan and Hitoshi come here once a week to rescue as many animals as they can.

They take animals that are blind, have skin problems, or broken legs -- unlike other rescue groups, which tend to take only young and friendly animals with high chances of being adopted.

"We actually don’t have a criteria so much," Mercer says. "We're not so worried about friendliness or adoptability. I really do believe that all animals deserve a chance."

The center has a close relationship with Heart Tokushima, and appreciates their efforts.

"We often have animals that are old or sick, and the people at Heart Tokushima take some of them from us and try to find them new homes," says Yusuke Tomihisa, manager at the Tokushima Prefectural Animal Welfare Center. "We really value the work that they are doing here."

After a long, hard day caring for animals, Susan and Hitoshi pick up their 2 children from nursery. Trying to juggle their work and domestic lives is always a challenge for the couple.

Susan first came to Tokushima in 2000 to work as an English teacher after graduating from college in Canada.

She originally had no interest in animal rescue, until she rescued an abandoned kitten she found in a cardboard box outside a convenience store.

In 2002, Susan and Hitoshi got married. By then, Susan had taken several strays into their small apartment. The numbers kept increasing and they eventually founded Heart Tokushima in 2006.

After rescuing 120 animals following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, they expanded and opened the shelter they're using now.

They say they would like to rescue more unwanted pets, but space and resources are still limited.

"The hardest for me is to go into the animal control and have to choose because the space is only for one dog, when there are 2 or 3 dogs there that are equally as deserving of rescue," Susan says. "But we also have to be realistic and responsible, and only take on as much as we can handle."

The animals at Heart Tokushima are typical of the more than 100,000 pets that are abandoned in Japan every year.

One of the issues behind the situation is the so-called “puppy mill” problem, where breeders abandon unsold or unwanted animals.

One puppy-mill victim -- a Chihuahua called Miki -- was rescued by Heart Tokushima before being adopted by a family. She's a dog with a traumatic past.

"Miki is afraid of men. I wonder if a man did something horrible to her in the past, perhaps when she was at the breeders'," says Miki's owner, Rie Yoshinaga.

Miki was one of over 100 dogs abandoned in a rural area in 2010 by a breeder.

In recent years, puppy-mill cases like these have revealed the dark side of Japan’s decades-long pet boom. Including Miki, Heart Tokushima saved 55 dogs in the incident.

Miki was found with almost no teeth, probably caused by malnutrition from being forced to suckle puppies for most of her adult life.

"There are people who think dogs don't have feelings, but they do feel happiness and sadness, of course, like human beings," Yoshinaga says. "Some people treat dogs as commercial products, and just want to make as much money as they can from them."

While Miki has finally found herself a family and a place she can call home, Nana, a dog at Heart Tokushima, represents an even broader social issue: Japan’s aging society.

Records show that around half the people who give up their dogs are over 60 years old.

Nana’s previous owner is in his 70s. After he was hospitalized there was no one left to take care of her.

The man’s daughter brought the dog to Heart Tokushima, and she visits the shelter to see Nana. "I feel so sorry for not being able to keep Nana with us," she says. "My father didn't imagine that he'd end up sick in hospital. He never thought that he'd have to give her up one day."

More and more animals like Nana are being given up as owners become too old or infirm, and unable to care for them.

Heart Tokushima has re-homed two-thirds of its rescue-pets. And Susan believes even those that stay at the shelter for years still have a chance.

"We have one dog, he's been with us almost 8 or 9 years now, he's a very, very shy dog and we thought maybe he would spend the rest of his life here, and he will be adopted," Susan says. "So these really happy endings is what keeps us going every day, to know that we made a difference for that animal and for the family that's adopting as well."

Choeiji Temple in Osaka holds an annual pet memorial service, where people pray for the beloved dogs and cats they’ve lost. The ashes of over 1,000 animals are there.

Susan and Hitoshi are encouraged to promote their shelter at the service every year. They also bring some of their current residents.

People who’ve adopted animals from Heart Tokushima come along too. It’s a chance for reunions and time to catch up.

"When I rescue a cat or dog I want to know their well-being until the end, so I'm always so happy to have very, very good adopters," Susan says.

As long as pets are being abandoned, Susan says she'll continue her work. Her message is a simple one: "We'll keep rescuing and finding forever homes when we possibly can."

Dr. Yoshie Kakuma, an expert on companion-animal behavior and animal welfare, joined anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: So, the number of abandoned animals put down has considerably decreased over the last decade. How much do you think volunteer groups like Heart Tokushima have contributed to this?

Kakuma: I think such volunteer groups are significant in reducing the numbers. After a law in 2006 allowed the private sector to shelter and adopt unwanted animals, dogs and cats can be taken from animal control centers run by local governments, to private shelters or houses with volunteers, and can then be re-homed by them.

Shibuya: I've actually adopted 2 dogs from a rescue group like Heart Tokushima and I've seen that there are many challenges they face in sustaining their organizations. What concerns you about the conditions of these rescue groups?

Kakuma: The challenges of groups like Heart Tokushima are the lack of charity and specialists. It is often said that the Japanese to making donations, in general. In Japan, there are no big animal-welfare organizations like those in other countries which have a great annual budget, mainly from legacies and donations. Such charities hire specialists like dog trainers and even scientists to promote good welfare and successful adoption. I think transparency is key for such groups, as they are too small to be known by the general public. Public shelters hold special officials such as veterinarians, so they should monitor such volunteer groups, otherwise such volunteers can be too emotional and may become just troubling animal correctors. They should cooperate to work for sheltering, adoption and education.

Shibuya: In the report, we covered 2 big issues. One was about the puppy-mill industry in Japan. How do you see this problem?

Kakuma: As long as there are people who want to buy smaller and younger puppies and kittens, there will always be animals that are suffering. So now I think it's important to raise an awareness of the general public as responsible consumers, possible future owners of pets, with regards to conditions and suffering of animals produced as pets in some ways. But I:m not saying all pet shops should stop their business, because I think the pet industry can support pets from cradle to grave of the pets, properly. By giving professional advice, then pet owners don't have to feel like giving up their pets.

Shibuya: The other issue is about animals that have become victims of Japan's aging society. How can this be dealt with?

Kakuma: There are more dogs and cats being relinquished because owners cannot take care of them anymore, because of their health, living and financial conditions. Many apartments, public housing units and nursing homes do not allow pets. This is one of the biggest obstacles to living with pets in Japan. So this is not solely an issue of appropriate keeping of pets, but also an issue of proper watching of the elderly with public support.