KITAKYUSHU -- Umashima, known as "cat island" with more felines than people and a reputation as an off-the-beaten-path tourist spot, was revealed to have experienced a major drop in its cat population, from some 90 animals to around 30, in what is believed to have been a deliberate reduction.
Eyewitness reports say suspicious-looking food was seen left out for the animals, and that cats have been observed suffering visibly. Individuals connected with a preservation group and others tasked with the animals' care are mulling filing a criminal complaint and implementing emergency protection measures based on the possibility that cruelty has been perpetrated.
Situated some 10 kilometers away from Kokura port in Kitakyushu's Kokurakita Ward in western Japan, Umashima sits in the Hibikinada Sea and measures some 5.4 kilometers round. Fourteen households and about 30 people live there.
The island has always had many cats, but in recent years their number had increased to more than double the human population. With issues stemming from the smell of their excrement and them trampling fields, Fukuoka-based citizens' group Taisetsuna Nekotachi (precious cats) Project proposed sterilizing the animals.
Public interest incorporated foundation Doubutukikin (Animal fund) from Hyogo Prefecture, was then asked in 2014 to carry out the procedure. Of the around 90 cats confirmed to be on the island, 79 were neutered.
Afterwards, with support and other provisions from off-island organizations, community-wide protection was provided for the cats. It eventually became a secluded tourist spot.
In recent years, however, incidents such as formerly healthy cats foaming at the mouth and collapsing before a local's eyes, or the corpse of a young cat being found off shore, have come to light. In September 2017, five cats were discovered dead or in a moribund state at the same time within a 30-meter radius around a meeting place near the harbor. All of them died.
In October 2018, and again in May 2019, cuts of fish laced with a blue substance appearing to be pharmaceutical in nature were found placed in multiple locations on the island including in fields and outside the office of the Japan Fisheries Cooperatives.
Taisetsuna Nekotachi Project joint head Masami Takeshita was consulted by an islander in May. She then sought cooperation from the Fukuoka-based nonprofit Stopping-Cruelty-to-Animals Testament to launch an investigation.
Takeshita says they could only confirm around 30 cats living on the island. Kunihisa Sagami, director of Doubutukikin, which has administered almost 100,000 neutering procedures across the country, said, "It's not a normal decrease, and there's no doubt that an outside, human element, such as animal cruelty, is causing it."
With the number of cats piling in for a bite come feeding time a shadow of its former self, frequent visitors are said to be asking residents if there has been an abnormal drop in the feline population. One resident said to the Mainichi Shimbun, "I feel angry and sad. If someone is responsible for this cruelty, I really want them to stop."
Takeshita is considering using the laced food as evidence to file a criminal complaint relating to contraventions including of the Act on Welfare and Management of Animals. She is also thinking of evacuating all of the remaining cats from the island, saying, "I want to protect these little lives that are cherished by the community in any way I can."
(Japanese original by Fumito Tsushima, Kyushu News Department)