Susan Mercer’s 15-year quest to educate about pet adoption in Japan

Pet ownership in Japan has exploded over the past decade, and the number of cats and dogs in Japan is now believed to exceed the number of children.

That’s why you’re likely to find a crowd cooing over the high priced kittens and puppies in pet store windows across the country. According to a recent study by Anicom Insurance, dog owners in Japan pay an annual average of 300,000 per dog while cat owners pay 160,000 per cat.

Despite these numbers, there are still plenty of animals that don’t have access to dog strollers and Instagram fame. In fact, the pet population in Japan faces many challenges, ranging from illnesses caused by overproduction and inbreeding to mass neglect and gassing of animals as part of animal control measures.

Fortunately, there are organizations that want to help. Founded in 2006 by Canadian Susan Mercer, HEART Tokushima is a Shikoku-based animal rescue center that began when Mercer adopted a cat she found abandoned outside a convenience store. Awarded NPO status in 2010, the animal center aims to reduce the number of stray dogs and cats through sterilization.

“We started HEART 15 years ago and at that time there were no other rescues or shelters in our area,” says Mercer, who divides his time between the shelter, a sterilization clinic and the education. “Now there are several rescues,” she continues, adding that the Japanese are more aware today of the possibility of adopting a pet rather than buying one.

Mercer and her husband, Hitoshi Tojo, are the driving force behind the organization, which has grown with the support of local and international volunteers.

The increase in the number of pet owners could indicate that animals are purchased on impulse, with little or no knowledge of the needs of the animals or the characteristics of the breed. This can lead to unwanted pets that are often abandoned or turned over to animal organizations such as HEART.

Animals taken care of by animal control in Japan have only a slim chance of being relocated, with around 80 percent of homeless animals gassed to death in groups; Statistics from the Ministry of the Environment for 2019 show that 27,108 dogs and 5,635 cats were killed this way in Japan. This figure is decreasing every year, but remains high compared to other developed countries.

It’s not all bad news, according to Mercer, “80% of the animals that have come to HEART in the past two years are animal control rescues. And she thinks education is the key, “The ‘five freedoms’ are hardly known and there is a lack of knowledge about animal welfare.”

The freedoms to which it refers were first formalized by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979 and describe five aspects of animal control: being free from hunger or thirst; faintness; pain, injury or illness; fear and distress; and the freedom to express most normal forms of behavior.

“There are two extremes: treating pets like human dolls or babies and not giving them the ability to express normal behaviors for their species, and the ‘no-kill’ movement,” she says. “Compassionate euthanasia is still not widely accepted and sometimes even frowned upon. This has resulted in numerous cases of storage or accumulation of sick and dangerous animals. “

Mercer believes that one of the larger issues with animal care in Japan is the loose regulations when it comes to raising and operating pet stores.

Funding is a major challenge for HEART and other relief groups. A voluntary organization that receives no government support, it relies solely on donations and grants from private companies.

“We have four salaried employees because the number of volunteers to help us take care of the animals is still lacking,” says Mercer.

The best way to help the cause, according to Mercer, is to donate to a reputable shelter or rescue, volunteer, adopt or foster and – perhaps most importantly – move on. word. And for those who are considering becoming a pet owner, his advice is to think about it first.

“Take a close look at the circumstances of your life and your lifestyle, and find a match that works for you,” she says.

For more information, visit HEART Tokushima at

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