A couple of days ago my husband, our children and I were leaving our flat to go to the park. On our way out, as one would, we took the rubbish to the communal recycling and bin store on the ground floor of our building.
My husband and I were chatting when we opened the bin store door and the motion sensor turned the lights on. Out of the corner of my eye I can see something dark and furry on the floor, just next to my husband’s feet. My husband is in full swing telling some ‘interesting’ story and does not notice the fur ball on the floor. Just as he is about to step on it, I grab his arm and pull him back.
We turn to whatever it is on the floor but can’t at first make out what it is. It looks like a piece of furry clothing that has fallen out of someone’s rubbish bin, or a dead rat the size of a cat. After having a closer look, we finally managed to figure out that it wasn’t a rat the size of a cat but that it was a cat – a cat in pretty awful condition.
It was breathing – just about, but it was very skinny, its back legs had some bruising and the eyes were badly infected – so badly that its eyes were buried under a thick layer of grey gunk, or maybe the eyes were not even there. In either case, the poor thing couldn’t see anything, and maybe because of that she wasn’t aware that she had been nearly stepped on or that we were there standing next to it. Or maybe it was aware that we were there, but it was too tired/unwell to care.
We felt we couldn’t leave the cat in the rubbish room even though we didn’t quite know what to do. You see, we don’t speak Japanese beyond the very basics, we didn’t know if there are any animal welfare organisations in Osaka and we were not sure if it would be acceptable just to take the cat to the vets (if we could find a veterinary surgery somewhere).
So, I called a Japanese friend for advice. She says that under no circumstances should we take the cat to the vets, because it’s not our cat. She continues by saying that there is very little we can do and the best thing would be just to leave the cat and let other people deal with it. I take a photo of the cat and email it to her to make her realize that we couldn’t possibly leave the cat in the rubbish room.
The photo did the trick and she offered to contact animal welfare officials. While she is searching the Internet for information, a young Japanese woman walks into the rubbish room and to our surprise she doesn’t seem to be stunned by the ill cat lying there next to the communal bin.
I ask my friend on the phone to talk to the woman in Japanese and ask if she knows whose cat it is.
In an indifferent manner, the lady explains that the cat has been in the room since the day before and that the janitor knows about it. Apparently, the janitor is trying to find out whether the cat’s owner lives in the building and has put some water and tuna in the corner of the room to keep the cat fed and watered until the owner is found.
Since the janitor and hence also our corporate landlord were aware of the cat, my friend on the phone says that we cannot help the cat. We just have to leave it in the room and let the janitor deal with it.
We go and try to talk to the janitor, but he is not in his booth by the main entrance of the building. There is a sign saying that he will return in an hour. So, reluctantly we start walking out and decide that we’ll return in an hour to talk to the janitor.
As we are walking out, we can see a woman going in the bin store with some bin bags. Before we can go and warn her about the cat, we hear a loud scream. My husband runs to the room to check if the cat (and the woman) are ok. Luckily the woman hadn’t stepped on the cat, instead she’s sitting on the floor of the room, out of breath, holding her chest. The cat had obviously scared the hell out of her. To minimise the risk of anyone stepping on the cat, my husband moves the cat to the corner of the room.
In the meanwhile, my son is in tears in the foyer of the building. He thinks that the cat had attacked the lady and is now petrified that the cat is coming after us too. He doesn’t realize that the cat is in no position to attack anyone and that the woman had screamed probably because she had nearly stepped on something she wasn’t expecting to be there.
But I understand how my son felt. When I was about 6 years old, some older children asked me and my twin sister if we wanted to see something scary. We followed them into the woods and found a dead cat which had some awful injuries. I was traumatized by the sight, and I still now, 35 years later, remember the cat’s disfigured face and the fact that every time I closed my eyes in the evenings for several weeks that followed that expedition into the woods, I could see the upsetting sight of the dead cat in my head. Naively, me, like my son, were scared of the cat whereas perhaps we should have really been scared of the people that had caused the injuries.
We leave our building, walk past a veterinary surgery that we seemed to recall having seen to check it is open and decide that when we go back an hour later, if the cat is still in the bin store, we will (against all advice) take it to the vets, but when we return, the cat is gone. There is no cat, no water or tuna in the room. The room smells like bleach. The janitor must have disinfected it. We can’t find the janitor in his booth or elsewhere, so eventually we go home.
The following day, with my poor Japanese, I go and speak to the janitor and ask about the cat.
I manage to understand the words ‘cat’ and ‘hospital’, and the janitor’s gives a thumbs up to indicate that the cat is ok.
Beyond the hospital, I don’t know what happened to the cat, but since the janitor seemed to be so upbeat, I assume that the cat had been reunited with its loving owner, who had taken the cat to the vets to get an antibiotic prescription strong enough to sort out the monster conjunctivitis it had. I don’t want to think that there are any other, less happy endings. So I will just stop here and say:
The Japanese love their cats and dogs and according to some stats, there are more pets in Japan than children (over 21 million!). Many pets in Japan have loving owners who pamper them excessively. But similarly to many other countries, Japan also has its pet industry related problems. The biggest problems seem to be that
(a) because of huge sums of money that changes hands in the pet industry, there are many irresponsible and cruel puppy/kitten farmers who not only produce a surplus of pets (who are euthanized) but also keep the puppies/kittens and their adult dogs/cats in disgusting conditions
(b) there are many Japanese pet owners that treat their pets like (fashion) accessories and when the pet gets slightly older it’s dumped at an animal shelter to be put down
(c) animal shelters have a short window (I believe in most shelters it is 7 days) for rehoming unwanted pets. This combined with the fact that the Japanese culture focuses on buying new (instead of secondhand) items means that unwanted pets are put down at the rate of 550 pets per day.
(d) and in relation to the cat in the bin store, one of things that suprised me was that none of the Japanese appeared to want to get involved. Instead, me and my husband (i.e. foreigners who can’t speak Japanese and don’t know how animal welfare issues are dealt with in Japan) were the only ones to feel that we should do something to help.
Some links to information about animal welfare issues in Japan: