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British Woman’s struggles to change animal welfare in Japan

By: Chizu Kobayashi

Date Posted: 2001-08-16

Anyone can’t help but notice the large number of stray dogs in Okinawa. The population of Okinawa is one tenth of that of Tokyo, but the number of animals killed by Hokenjo (Animal Control) here in Okinawa is three times more than in Tokyo. Compared to the United States, or European countries, Japan is still far behind when it comes to the welfare of animals, and Okinawa is even more behind when compared to other prefectures in Japan. It must be heartbreaking to live in Okinawa for animal-lovers. Many may hope to go back home as soon as possible in order to avoid seeing these poor animals. However, an English woman chose to take another path and tries to introduce the love of animals from England to Japan.

Her name is Elizabeth Oliver. Born in Summerset, England, in 1940, she came to Kansai 30 years ago as an English teacher. When she started to live in Kansai, she could not ignore stray dogs and cats on the streets. She started to rescue those animals one by one with her friends. Pretty soon, the number of animals in her care rose to almost 40. She started a small animal group in 1990 with four volunteers. She named her group ARK that stands for Animal Refuge Kansai.

In 1995 a huge earthquake hit Kansai region, and thousands of people lost their homes. However, humans are not the only ones who lost their homes. In that year, more than 600 animals were brought to ARK. Immediately, Elizabeth and the volunteers built a temporary shelter using vinyl sheets. It was time to change ARK from a small group supported by a few volunteers to an official organization. Thanks to the media that widely reported ARK’s work with animals who had lost their homes in the earthquake, ARK has grown into an organization with members and supporters all over Japan, and it became officially recognized as an NPO (Non Profit Organization) in September of 1999 by Osaka Metropolitan Government.

At present, ARK shelters 200 dogs, 130 cats, two goats, a pig, a wild boar, a silver fox and a Japanese raccoon. The organization receives no government funding and relies entirely on donations and volunteers. ARK has comfortable, spacious, and clean kennels, an exercise area and a clinic for the animals in their property in green rural surroundings in Kansai. There is also a room and a showers for volunteers who take care of dogs 24 hours a day in shifts. Volunteers and staff follow strict ARK guidelines in their work. For example, it is prohibited to listen to a Walkman in the facility because ambient sound is very important to detect unusual activities of the animals such as a dogs getting into a fight. Through the untiring efforts of Elizabeth, the staff, and volunteers, the animals at ARK are receiving the best care they need for both their physical and mental health. Each animal has a different menu depending on the size, health condition, and age. ARK’s role as a shelter for abandoned and abused animals is the core aspect of their animal welfare activities. They also place effort on future-oriented educational activities. Although the number of animals they rescue is large compared to other no-killing shelters in Japan, it is impossible to rescue even 1/100 of the animals being killed by the Animal Control bureaus in Japan. Elizabeth feels it is necessary to change Japanese society that is “dog-phobic” to use her term, and the best way to change it is reaching out to Japanese children. ARK has participated in “life science” classes at several schools. Elizabeth says, “Seeing children who have never touched a dog before in their lives play happily with ARK dogs by the end of the lecture is proof enough of the importance of this activity.”

Although not changing as fast as Elizabeth and other supporters of ARK hope, Japanese views are evolving. Elizabeth says, “Certainly there have been a lot of changes in attitudes towards the role of animals in this society.” as she reflects on what has changed in Japan in the past ten years since ARK came into existence. She says, “There is an increasing gap between the old-style, or some might say ‘traditional’ way of keeping animals, and the new style ‘modern’ approach.” The old style is just to keep dogs chained outside the house without enough exercise or attention. (In case of Okinawa, the old style is even worse. The owners just let their dogs run around lose, although there is a high possibility of the dogs being seriously injured or killed in a car accident, impregnating other dogs or being impregnated.) On the other hand, the new style owners take good care of their pets and even allow dogs into their house like a family member. “This new style trend has helped fuel a huge pet related industry; special diet foods, pet fashions, resort hotels, boutiques and coffee shops and of course, unfortunately on the negative side, unscrupulous breeders and pet shops cashing in on the latest fashion boom pets.” says Elizabeth. One of the most shocking cases of breeders reported to public was the one in Saitama prefecture. In the summer of 2000, SALA (Save Animals, Love Animals) an animal welfare group based in Tokyo went to investigate two sites where dogs had been kept for breeding. They found piles of mummified bodies and the place littered with bones and fur. Only 13 dogs out of 100 had survived, all suffering from lacerations, malnutrition, broken bones and skin diseases. Everyday the sounds of dogs fighting and killing each others were heard in the neighborhood. The dogs had to eat each other to survive. Also, in Okinawa, 15 dogs were left in front of a pet shop in November. Cherubims, an animal welfare group in Okinawa ended up in rescuing the dogs. Those dogs are old and neglected malteeses and Yorkshire terriers. Many of them rotten teeth and skin diseases. Risa Nakamura, the head of Cherubims thinks the suspect was an unregistered breeder. It was the right before the Animal Protection Law changed, and probably the breeder could not afford to meet the requirements set by the new law and decided to get rid of the dogs.

Before you leave Okinawa, you might be able to do something for animals in Okinawa. Many innocent dogs like your pet sitting by your feet are killed with carbon dioxide in a gas chamber everyday. 50 to 100 dogs are killed in Okinawa every day. You don’t have to be exactly like Elizabeth Oliver, but you can start with something small such as teaching your Okinawan friend how Americans take care of their pets or donating dog food to an animal welfare group.

ARK publishes a quarterly newsletter, “A Voice for Animals”. The newsletter is usually about 15 pages and full of animal information, including activities of ARK and other animal groups in and outside Japan, pet health, and pet training. All the articles are translated into English. To receive the newsletter, you can be a member of ARK. Membership starts from ¥3,000 per year. You can deposit money at any off-base post office to account number: 00900-0-151103 Animal Refuge Kansai. For more information call 0727-37-0712 or email at arkbark@wombat.or.jp

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