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Spate of calf, piglet thefts hit east Japan cattle farmers in the pocket

Satoshi Aoki, who had a calf stolen from his farm, is seen explaining how the incident unfolded, in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, on Aug. 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Kanako Watanabe)
Two individuals carrying a calf upside down toward a parked vehicle where another person is waiting, visible on the right hand side of frame, are seen in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, on Aug. 22, 2020, in this image taken by a security camera and provided by Tsuruta Farming.

Thefts of calves and piglets have been taking place one after another in the north Kanto region of eastern Japan, with eight cows and 670 piglets stolen along with other farming produce, police say.

    According to both the Tochigi and Gunma prefectural police, the losses incurred by the thefts have topped 26 million yen (about $246,785).

    It's thought that reselling the calves or piglets would be difficult for the perpetrators, and the motive for the thefts is not yet understood. The prefectural police departments are also considering the possibility that one group is responsible for all of the thefts, and they are sharing information.

    One theft took place on the night of Aug. 22. At 10:29 p.m., after the rain had lifted and humidity still hung in the air, a security camera captured a trio of men getting out of a minivan. The camera was set up on the side of the cowshed at Tsuruta Farming, based in the Tochigi Prefecture city of Ashikaga, close to the border with Gunma Prefecture.

    The perpetrators were wearing masks, short-sleeved shirts and shorts. They appeared to have short hair. For about 15 minutes they walked around as if looking for something, before returning briefly to the car to get something. Then they entered the cowshed. Some minutes later, two of the individuals emerged carrying a calf. Its legs were tied, and it hung limply between them.

    The cowshed from which the calves were stolen is seen in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, on Aug. 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Kanako Watanabe)

    After bundling the animal into the back seat of the vehicle, they went back again into the cowshed and took out a further two calves. At 10:55 p.m., with the three stolen calves stowed in the vehicle, they left the scene. The minivan's license plates had been concealed with what appears to be black tape.

    Ashikaga Police Station reported that the same cowshed owned by Tsuruta Farming had already seen two calves disappear between the evening of June 20 and the morning of June 21. Additionally, one calf was also taken from a farm just around 4 kilometers away, owned by Satoshi Aoki, 68, between the morning of Aug. 9 and the morning of Aug. 10. Then the incident on Aug. 22 at Tsuruta Farming occurred. This time the theft was captured by a security camera the company had installed following the first livestock disappearance on their property.

    The stolen animals were reportedly all newborn Japanese Black calves, aged between 2 days and 2 weeks, and weighing between 40 and 60 kilograms each. Kazuhiro Tsuruta, the 57-year-old head of Tsuruta Farming, noted, "When they were carried off, they didn't resist at all. Perhaps they were knocked out with anesthetic or something."

    But reselling the cows would be difficult, and there are still a number of unresolved mysteries around the thefts.

    According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, calves are tagged with an individual 10-digit tracing number shortly after birth as part of a ministry system to track cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. Any cow without an identifying ear tag cannot go to market.

    "They're sorted by the individual identification number system, so there's no way the animals can be resold on the market or be taken overseas," Tsuruta said.

    From May onwards, there have been cases in the area of dairy cows and goats being stolen. "Perhaps they were stolen because people wanted to eat them," Tsuruta conjectured. "I think it's possible people who can prepare meat are involved."

    An individual connected to the Tochigi livestock farming association added, "I heard of an incident in which Holstein dairy cattle were stolen a few decades ago, but I have no memory at all of anything like this happening before."

    A senior prefectural police official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Perhaps they're handing it over to someone they know, or reselling them online. Or maybe instead they plan to raise them themselves? We're looking at a number of possibilities."

    Aoki decided to install a security camera following the thefts on his property. In the blazing summer heat, as he and his wife tended to their remaining 25 calves, he expressed his anger to the Mainichi Shimbun, saying, "The cows are very sensitive, so when one of them disappears, they moo over and over. It's like they're saying, 'That one's gone!' It makes you sad. Maybe they (the people who took the animals) have had their incomes fall from the new coronavirus, and thought that they wanted to get their hands on a cow in the quickest way they could. I want to see them caught as soon as possible."

    Elsewhere, in Gunma Prefecture, a total of 670 pigs were stolen between early July and the middle of August. This is said to have cost farmers in the four Gunma prefectural cities of Maebashi, Isezaki, Ota and Tatebayashi upwards of 24 million yen. The Gunma livestock farming association reported that many of the stolen pigs were piglets between 1 1/2 and 2 months old, weighing around 52 kilograms each. A person in charge at the association expressed their confusion, saying, "Piglets have a low economic value when it comes to selling them for meat, so there's fundamentally no market for them."

    Apart from the pigs, 28 chickens have been stolen in Isezaki, and in Tatebayashi and the prefecture's Ora district, two cows have also been taken.

    At an Aug. 27 news conference, Maebashi Mayor Ryu Yamamoto said that the city government, pig farmers and JA (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives) Maebashi have begun coming together to formulate a way to stop the thefts. He also mentioned that they were looking into financial aid to install security cameras, among other measures. Mayor Yamamoto also pointed out that trespassing in pig pens to steal the animals increases the risk of infectious diseases spreading, and added, "Farmers rear these animals tirelessly. It is extremely regrettable."

    (Japanese original by Kanako Watanabe, Kodai Tamai, Utsunomiya Bureau, and Hinako Kikuchi, Maebashi Bureau)

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