How Tokyo Stray Cats Live: What to Know Before Taking One Home

By Yoshinori Eki : Reporter of Toyokeizai
December 20,2015
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Abandoned cat in the park. She died young of disease in this summer.

Dogs, once kings of the pet world as measured by ownership numbers, are on the verge of being overtaken by cats. But behind this boom in cat popularity is a harsh reality of feline suffering. If only people would be a little more considerate of those around them, many of these homeless cats would be spared a cruel end.

This fall, an old bar district adjacent to Musashi-koyama Station (near Tokyo's Meguro district) that has been around since the end of World War II will be demolished. In its place—in a neighborhood with almost no tall buildings—a 41-story apartment complex will be built in three-and-a-half years' time. This is just one of the many redevelopment projects taking place in the last few years before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In the areas surrounding these redevelopment projects, it is common for stray cats to be driven out into the cold, exposing them to even more bitter conditions than before. However, in this Musashi-koyama station neighborhood, the new construction project has not brought about the same level of tragedy one would normally see.

Volunteer Kazue Hiroi has been spaying and neutering cats for about eight years now, and she feeds them and cleans up their excrement on a daily basis.

As a result, the original population of about 50 stray cats has been brought down to 15 or so. The average lifespan of a stray is four to five years, meaning that these felines don't have much more time in this world. It looks as if the remaining cats will be able to live out their final years in peace in the neighborhood surrounding the construction site.

60,000 strays in Tokyo

Approximately 10 million cats are owned as pets in Japan; the number of stray cats is unknown. According to a survey carried out by the Tokyo metropolitan government in FY 2011, Tokyo-to (Tokyo Metropolis) was populated by 1,100,000 cats, 60,000 of which were strays. Among those owned as pets, 860,000 were indoor-only cats and 190,000 were allowed or kept outside.

When survey respondents were asked if their cats had been spayed or neutered, 85% answered in the affirmative for male cats and 86% for female cats. This reveals the risk of unexpected, rapid proliferation of cats who have not been spayed or neutered in time by their owners, which can lead to poor pet living conditions brought about by too many cats for the owner to handle.

In FY 2014, the number of dogs and cats put to death or killed (including death by illness, accident and so forth) in Tokyo-to was 1,116, which included 61 adult dogs, 0 puppies, 376 adult cats and 679 kittens. The total for dogs and cats killed reached its highest point in FY 1983 at more than 56,400 animals.

The particularly high figure for kittens is due to the fact that cats that have not been spayed/neutered often give birth to their young outdoors. In many of these cases, the pregnancy is due to the unspayed father being allowed by his owner to roam around outside.

The metropolitan government is aware of the importance of controlling cat proliferation, and offers subsidies for spaying/neutering operations. The amounts, requirements, and so forth differ by local ward government.

In model districts in Bunkyo Ward, all costs are covered for surgery on cats without owners; whereas, in Minato Ward, Shinjuku Ward and others, set subsidy amounts are offered even if the cats have owners.

About three years ago, I personally rescued a kitten that had been abandoned by its owner, a man who found himself with too many cats to handle. In this case, the man was living alone in a small, six-tatami (118-square-foot) apartment with several stray cats he had rescued. He put off their spaying/neutering for too long, and in less than a year, his tiny apartment was populated by more than 20 felines.

The man had the parents put down at an animal shelter, then divided the kittens into several groups and abandoned them in a large park. If this man had known about the local government's subsidy system, this grave situation could have been avoided.

Good intentions sometimes lead to grisly results

These kittens were spayed/neutered by volunteers and returned to their park, where they received food. However, some of them were later kicked and stomped to death by people in the park at night. One man's good intentions in bringing cats home because he felt sorry for them eventually led to this nightmare. Unfortunately, incidents such as these are exceedingly frequent.

Despite the surge in cat popularity throughout Japan, not everyone is fond of these animals. During the abovementioned FY 2011 metropolitan government survey, 62% of respondents indicated that due to cats’ excrement, meowing/howling, and so forth, they felt that they were "a nuisance," and more than 58% answered that the feeding of homeless cats was "a bad idea. Even when people's actions (i.e. feeding or taking in stray cats) are rooted in good intentions, the local community may not welcome or appreciate them.

Furthermore, the animosity towards such actions among people who do not like cats can lead to animal abuse and killings.

In order to find a solution to this situation, let us return for another look to the efforts of Kazue Hiroi in the old bar district. She runs a sushi shop near Musashi-koyama Station, and during her breaks, at night and during other off hours, she dons her "Striving to Solve Cat-related Problems" sash and patrols by bicycle the various local spots where stray cats gather to eat.

With a strong sense of caution as well as the knowledge that some cats may not immediately eat food that has been put out by people, she places slips of paper with the notice "Will be collected and disposed of in 15 minutes" underneath food-filled dishes and containers before moving on to the next spot.

While considering the needs of those who dislike cats, Hiroi clearly explains her intentions and takes bold action—an approach that has led to success in her efforts. This goes to show that consideration of others' needs, effective methods, and a bit of courage can go a long way toward improving the circumstances of homeless cats.

People should take a good look at the current situations under which these cats live. The famous collapse of Japan's asset price bubble (real estate, stock market prices, etc.) had strictly monetary consequences. However, a similarly abrupt downturn in current cat popularity trends will create a crisis that adversely affects the lives of numerous small and helpless animals.