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Rescue of 238 cats from northern Japan home highlights animal hoarding problem

Cats that were found in a harmful environment in a house located in the northern Japan city of Sapporo are shown in this photo provided by Nyantomo Network Hokkaido, an animal welfare nonprofit organization based in the same city.

FUKUOKA -- In March, 238 cats were discovered living in unsanitary, harmful conditions in a house in the northern Japan city of Sapporo before being placed under protection by local authorities and animal rights groups.

The animal hoarding occurred as a result of the owners neglecting the spaying and neutering of the cats. Such hoarding is becoming a social problem, and a legal revision has recently gone into effect, which is expected to have certain preventive effects. However, there have been many cases where animal hoarders have battled issues of their own, such as poverty and mental illness, and experts are underscoring the need to support such individuals.

Tamami Katsuta, head of Nyantomo Network Hokkaido, a nonprofit animal welfare organization based in Sapporo, recalls the abysmal scene she encountered when she entered the hoarders' house in the city with staffers from the city's animal care center.

"There were many cats whose bones and skin made me wonder how long they hadn't been fed, and I couldn't bear to look at them," she said.

This photo provided by NPO Nyantomo Network Hokkaido shows cats that were found left in an unsanitary environment in a house located in the northern Japan city of Sapporo, in Hokkaido.

According to Sapporo's municipal animal care center, the hoarding of the 238 cats came to light after the landlord visited the house as the married couple in their 50s and their son in his 30s who lived there had not been paying their rent on time. The family moved out of the house at the end of March, leaving the cats behind. The cats were crowded together in confined spaces on the first and second floors which stank of excrement, urine, and other smells. Masses of cat bones were also discovered.

Upon questioning, the couple is said to have told the municipal government, "We didn't bring in the cats for spaying or neutering surgeries, and before we knew it, they had already grown in large numbers that were too much for us to handle." Most of the 71 cats rescued by the NPO were female and pregnant. Although almost all of the cats eventually found new owners, the landlord covered the initial expenses incurred by the municipal animal care center when it took in the cats. The initial costs to handle the 238 felines amounted to around 500,000 yen, or roughly $4,660, working out at about 2,100 yen per cat. Costs incurred in spaying and neutering surgeries, hospital fees, and pet food expenses were borne by the Sapporo Small Animal Veterinary Association and animal welfare groups -- thereby imposing a massive financial cost and labor burden on the surrounding parties.

Animal hoarding is a problem seen nationwide in Japan. A questionnaire conducted in October 2019 on 125 local governments of prefectures, ordinance-designated major cities, and core cities found that the number of complaints filed by numerous neighbors who live near a household owning two or more pets (usually cats or dogs) reached 2,064 in fiscal 2018. Among such complaints, over 30% were directed at households owning 10 or more pets.

According to the Environment Ministry's analysis of 368 nationwide instances of animal hoarding whose specific details were known, about 30% of the owners were aged 70 or above, and there were quite a few cases where the owners' decision-making ability had declined due to dementia.

Spaying and neutering surgeries can cost tens of thousands of yen (hundreds of dollars) per pet, but over half of the pet owners were struggling to get by. Cats breed two to three times a year, and give birth to around five kittens per delivery. It was found that 40% of owners started hoarding pets after they began keeping a stray cat in the house.

This photo provided by NPO Nyantomo Network Hokkaido shows cats that were found left in an unsanitary environment in a house located in the northern Japan city of Sapporo, in Hokkaido.

Nai Machiya, a veterinary inspector of the Japan Animal Welfare Society based in Tokyo, commented, "There are issues such as poverty, Japan's aging population, and mental ailments lurking behind animal hoarding. It is important for local authorities to partner with welfare bodies and police to discover and deal with these problems at an early stage. The government should also consider adopting laws such as those in the U.K., which enable temporary emergency protection of dogs and cats as well as the issuance of orders that ban repeat animal hoarders from owning any more pets."

The revised Act on Welfare and Management of Animals was outlined in June 2019 and has gradually come into force from June this year. The law has made spaying and neutering surgeries mandatory for owners in cases where difficulties in owning pets properly due to excessive breeding is a possibility.

Furthermore, the revised act has strengthened penalties against animal abuse. The punishment for killing an animal has been raised from "imprisonment with work for two years or less, or a fine of 2 million yen or less" to "imprisonment with work for five years or less, or a fine of 5 million yen or less." The penalty for abandoning or abusing an animal was upgraded from "a fine of 1 million yen or less" to "imprisonment with work for one year or less, or a fine of 1 million yen or less." Animal hoarding and other actions "causing debilitation of an animal by owning it under grossly inappropriate conditions" are also categorized as abuse.

Some parties involved in animal protection hold hope that the new revisions will help prevent maltreatment. Machiya remarked, "I am able to give out stricter instructions now that spaying and neutering surgeries have become mandatory."

Kaoru Hattori, 37, a notary public officer who also manages a cat cafe in the city of Koga, Fukuoka Prefecture in southwestern Japan, has encountered numerous cases of cats being abandoned in front of the cafe, and she has placed the cats under her protection each time. A man who was shown in surveillance camera footage to have abandoned a Persian cat in a suitcase this January claimed that he threw away the cat as he had to move into a place where he couldn't own one. Hattori commented, "I would like for people to know that abandoning a pet can also develop into and be regarded as a criminal case."

(Japanese original by Mayu Suenaga, Kyushu News Department)

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