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163 cats in tiny room: Japan mulls more welfare support as pet hoarder cases rise

Some of the cats found in an apartment in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo, are seen in this image provided by Chizuko Sato.

TOKYO -- Cases in Japan of animal hoarders, who live with a large number of pet dogs, cats or other animals who have often multiplied at such a rate that they can no longer take care of them, are increasing, gaining attention across the country.

With poverty, disabilities and other difficulties believed to be behind a rise in the eye-catching cases, the Ministry of the Environment has begun drawing up guidelines to urge municipal authorities to offer welfare support for animal hoarders.

"There were 163 cats shut up inside a packed, 11-square-meter space. It was like a sauna. The room absolutely stank of their waste, and the walls were rotting," said Chizuko Sato, 61, describing the state she found in a room at a wooden apartment building in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward in August 2019.

Sato, who visits such properties in her capacity as head of the animal support volunteer group Katsushika wan nyan club, said most of the cats were rake thin from the effects of heatstroke. The backs of some of the cats had sagged after rotting. Sato had all of the animals undergo care including being spayed, neutered or treated. She then was able to pass on around half of the cats, including kittens, to new owners.

Their original owner is a woman in her 40s, who was living together with her octogenarian mother. They were receiving public assistance, a form of financial support provided by government bodies for people living in poverty.

Around eight years prior the pair began taking in stray cats, but because they didn't spay or neuter them the animals multiplied quickly. The woman reportedly said, "It's sad for them to be neutered and I didn't have the money for the procedures."

Although the woman neglected the cats, failing to provide sufficient food for the animals or clean up their excrement, she gave all 163 of them names and she had affection toward them. Sato said of the owner, "She was isolated from the community, and she didn't really open up, so I never got a sense of how she really felt."

Cases involving animal hoarders have emerged in a number of regions in Japan. In September 2019, a woman in her 70s living in Kochi, in the western Japan prefecture of the same name, was found living with over 20 dogs. Although the city government managed to obtain an understanding of her situation from consultations with relatives, it had difficulties getting a confirmation of intent from the woman herself, which led to a delay in any intervention.

Eventually, an animal welfare group was entrusted with temporary care of the dogs from November 2019, and through handover meetings the organization looked for those willing to take over the animals. An official at the city government's environmental safety and food health division said, "We were immobilized by a barrier around private information. With issues of ownership, we can't forcefully take possessions, so with only our administrative power there was nothing we could do."

According to the environment ministry, in fiscal 2018, among all of the country's 47 prefectures, 20 ordinance-designated cities and 58 core cities, 120 reported receiving a total of 2,064 complaints about animal hoarding behavior.

By analyzing data from 368 animal hoarding cases that have been responded to by local governments, it emerged that some 53% of the concerned pet owners were living under strained circumstances. The causes of their difficulties varied, but around 20% of them had suffered a bereavement that meant they lost family members, or lived separately from relatives. There were also pet owners who were suspected to have mental disorders, intellectual disabilities or neurocognitive disorders.

In March 2019, the environment ministry established an investigative panel of experts to consider potential countermeasures to prevent further animal hoarder cases. It intends by March 2021 to decide upon guidelines aimed at municipal governments, which will include methods to prevent people owning inappropriately large numbers of animals as well as response measures.

The chairperson for the investigative panel, professor Ayako Uchikoshi, who specializes in the study of public administration at Seijo University, said, "In the background of these issues are poverty and disabilities. As a form of welfare policy, we must think about this seriously."

An official at one municipal government spoke of their belief that a change is needed in administrative thinking, "There is a tendency at administrative institutions to treat issues around animals lightly, but if we don't approach the owners of these pets with a view to provide welfare, then we can't resolve these problems."

(Japanese original by Ayumu Iwasaki, Science & Environment News Department)

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