Living in Japan
ARK Japan: Taking care of the less fortunate

ARK Japan: Taking care of the less fortunate

Added In: Living in Japan › Culture

Lorriane Mills

There is a saying that goes ‘Wherever you go in the world, you will always find an English woman running an animal rescue centre in the hills’.

Elizabeth Oliver came to Japan out of curiosity. Like most foreigners she took an English teaching job to support herself whilst exploring the country.

She soon wised up to the fact that the cats and dogs running loose along the streets were actually strays. Dogs were kept, not as family members, but chained up on restrictive leashes outside, come rain or shine. Taking walks in the hills she regularly came across kittens and puppies dumped in secluded areas.

In 1990 she started to get involved with the stray situation in Japan, and by 1995, after the Great Hanshin earthquake, her workload forced her to leave her teaching job to concentrate on re-homing and rescue full time.

There are now roughly 500 animals in her care, handled by 30 members of staff. About 300 are dogs, the rest are cats with a few rabbits. ARK is an International Associate Member of the British charity The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). There is also an ARK office in Tokyo which runs adoption and foster schemes.

Although the Center enjoys a rural setting, it is a surprisingly quick and easy route from Osaka’s Hankyu railway station. A quick change at Kawanishi-noseguchi on the Takaratsuka line and you take the meandering cozy train into the mountains, ending up at Myokenguchi, the end station on the line. From there it’s a simple bus ride away or a free pick up from one of the friendly ARK staff.

The Centre is well organized and clean. Members of staff are all busy at work, walking dogs or cleaning kennels. There are sections for the different types of animals. Easy to handle dogs are the ones you meet first, the others that have never had much human contact or who have become very distrustful of people, are a little way off in a private corner where they can slowly get used to being handled and experience human kindness.

Space is understandably of the essence in Japan and out of this problem, high rise puppy mills have emerged; some operated by unscrupulous breeders, others by so-called ‘balcony breeders’, ordinary people who want to cash in on the pet boom. Pedigree dogs stacked in crates become birthing machines for money. Some of the animals that enter ARK have never been handled or given space to move around.

It isn’t all about rescue. Although Oliver and her staff have put themselves in harms way many times to act and speak up for animals, ARK offers a temporary refuge for animals coming out of miserable situation and going into a better one. The main focus is re-homing. There are many reasons why animals find themselves at ARK. There is of course abandonment and calls from the public to notify someone, at least, about strays or ongoing cruelty, but a few cases are a little different. For instance, a lady is due to marry and her new husband doesn’t like cats, so she has to give the animal up – a pet owner has passed away – and a never ending flow of kittens. ARK asks people who rescue or bring in pets to contribute something towards the cost of vaccinations, neutering and other medical fees. Some people are happy to do this, but others say they have no money and since they are likely to dump that animal somewhere, ARK usually accepts them, paid or not. Other animals are dumped secretly at night near ARK, dogs tied to utility poles, cats piled in cardboard boxes, often with a note saying ‘I can not cope with these animals any more.’

Alongside offering sanctuary for the unwanted, homeless and abused, the Center promotes the neutering TNR (Trap Neuter Return) program for feral cats, and offers advice on the proper care of animals to owners. Animal care education centers are on the rise around the world. In Sweden, because they have no significant animal abandonment problems, they actually import dogs from Spain for adoption and re-homing. Most Northern European countries have very high standards in animal rescue facilities, and in the USA eighty percent of owned cats are neutered. But a balance must be maintained. Whilst it usually is a realistic practice to have your family pet neutered to save an abundance of unwanted puppies, kittens or bunnies, even those who rescue and neuter animals need to have emotional maturity and wisdom. If you neuter all the feral dogs, the feral cat population increases, if you neuter all the feral cats and the population decreases, the rat and mouse population increases.

So for the time being, animals in Japan can face a raw deal. If no kindness is extended to them via the local community, stray and unwanted animals find themselves down at the Hokensho to live out the last days of their lives, until they are gassed and incinerated.

There are those, like Oliver, who would like to see drastic improvements made to the animal extermination system.

1) Animals being euthanized individually using pentobarbitol injection, instead of being killed in groups of twenty to thirty in a gas chamber.

2) Focus on re-homing friendly adoptable animals (adults as well as puppies and kittens) and equip centers with specialized animal care and management personnel.

3) Make sure every animal given out for adoption is neutered. Interview people wanting to adopt much more strictly, making them understand the full responsibility of owning a pet.

4) Reduce the registration fee (for dogs) for animals that have been neutered

5) Try to get the authorities working together with animal welfare groups and the veterinary association to reduce the killing numbers.

However, this kind of activism can lead to the activist being labeled as a troublemaker. As much as most admire Oliver and her commitment to animals, things are not so friendly all the time. Speaking out about something that the general public never sees is a brave act in itself, but the Hokensho process has had its veils slightly lifted. In June 2008 Days Japan magazine ran a feature by Shigemichi Oishi, which included eight photographs showing the inner operations of a Hokensho. In a steel box around fifteen full sized dogs are squashed in. The gas taps are visible on the ceiling. Other shots show the bodies of dogs and cats piled up after they have been gassed. When one thinks of animal euthanasia or ‘putting an animal to sleep’, one tends to think of the scene where an animal is gently held by its caring owner, while a Veterinarian puts a lethal injection into the vein of a leg. Rather like administering an anaesthetic and the animal goes to sleep instantly.

The opposite happens when dealing with around three hundred and fifty thousand exterminations per year. The system is automated so no contact needs to be made with the animals, everything is done with the touch of a button from entry, to holding, to death, to incineration. With the general public gaining access to the bold reporting of the truth about disposable pets, many might start to wonder if it is the correct solution for strays and abandoned animals. If the fate of an animal is to die in a gas chamber, terrified knowing its death is imminent, and left to stand for hours on wet floors before being disposed of, what does it say about the people who created and carry out these procedures? None of us want to face these facts or see the pictures, but it’s very real.

You may try to imagine what type of person works at a Hokensho? In Oishi’s feature there is a photograph of six workers holding plain cards up, each worker having written their opinion. One reads, ‘Look after your animals until the end of their days.’ Another, ‘To have someone else kill your dog is the lowest!’ Another, ‘Rather than do things on impulse, have a well thought out plan! “I could raise a dog” is very different from “I want to raise a dog”!’

An important element for the happiness of animals will always be education, and to that end a new venture has been launched. ARK recently purchased land for a new facility in Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture, where it plans not only to carry on its work of rescue, care and re-homing of homeless animals, but also to allow willing parties to attend courses at the new centre and become skilled in animal care. The present Refuge has never been short of visitors and the new centre, when it is built, will accommodate those seeking to adopt an animal, volunteers, visiting veterinary staff and those taking part in courses and events.

Although the ARK adoption rates are very successful, with most animals going into loving situations, some animals, for reason of chronic health problems, behavioural issues or those which are very fearful, may never be re-homed and these will probably remain at ARK for the rest of their days. So the new land will also become a sanctuary for them, allowing them more freedom and the chance to relax more.

Whether they are cute toys, guard dogs or end up as shamisen skin, the relationship between humans and animals requires balance, harmony and skill. Animal cruelty is a world-wide problem, but education is also becoming a global realization and new light is being shed on many situations. The Humane Society of the United States demonstrates the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty. Many animal refuge centers and domestic violence centers have teamed up to deal with both problems in one go. It is well documented that those who are abused, in turn abuse animals. Another angle under investigation is victims of abuse sometimes don’t leave home because they can’t take their pets with them. Animals can unwittingly find themselves in the middle of domestic arguments or on the receiving end of another’s frustrations.

Like the Chinese proverb states: ‘Children are the mirror of their parents’. So animals may be the mirror of their owners. When one bites the other does too. When one side has been  abused, so has the other.

Luckily, there are many willing souls ready to learn how to look after animals responsibly. They bring empathy to daily dealings with people who no longer want their animals, or lack the basic knowledge that pets need to be walked, fed, trained and kept warm and dry. It takes a strong caring heart to deal with the ARK office phone which constantly rings, the majority of the time with reports of abuse, stray animals, infested puppy farms or households brimming full of cats.

Being a Non Profit Organization ARK relies on donations as well as sales of goods, sponsorship of animals and membership. As well as the thousands of calendars the centre sell each year, a new book on the center has just been published called Rescue! Oliver was approached by a publisher, and a bilingual full colour photo book with interviews was released.

For those who may not be able to own their own pet, sponsorship of an ARK animal is welcomed. Volunteers are also welcome; help is always needed for walking, hugging and petting the animals, and the less romantic work such as cleaning pens. The center can also supply accommodation for volunteers who come to donate time and energy.

The future will tell if responsibility and education replace the current climate of pets being regarded as disposable objects, but for the time being, many kind folk like Oliver will continue to work tirelessly, in Japan, on behalf of those who cannot speak.

For more information on volunteering, adoptions and donations:
The bilingual book Rescue! is available throughout Japan in all good books stores.
Days Japan Vol 5 No 6 2008 June is available on back order from: (In Japanese)