BY ALENA ECKELMANN
Setting up an animal shelter in Japan, a country that treats its dogs and cats to designer clothes yet refuses them basic animal welfare, is no mean feat, but English woman Isabella Gallaon-Aoki has done it. What’s more, Isabella, who has been in Japan for 24 years and now lives in Niigata Prefecture, has found a sustainable solution for running an animal shelter by combining it with a pet hotel.
I spoke to Isabella about the obstacles she has faced and about challenges for the future.
Animal welfare in Japan—acting upon an urgent need:
Isabella has always liked animals and she had pets as a child back home in the UK. Before she came to Japan, she had not been involved in animal welfare at all. However, when she saw the situation of animals in this country, she soon realised that it was so much worse compared to the UK that she wanted to do something about it.
“I adopted a rescued dog from the hokencho [a public health centre that oversees the animal shelters run by a city or prefecture]. This is when I set foot into this sort of place for the first time. I was absolutely horrified at the way the animals were kept. I also heard that abandoned animals are still gassed in Japan, compared to getting an injection as is done in the UK.”
As a result, Isabella got involved with a local animal welfare group and helped them with their activities. She realised that most such groups in Japan work with volunteers who take in animals temporarily while new homes for them are being found. These groups do not own or operate an animal shelter or place where they can keep the animals longer. At first Isabella thought that this was not a bad way of helping abandoned animals, as they were welcomed in a home rather than kept in a facility. However, Isabella soon realised that many animals were condemned to die simply because there were not enough volunteers who had space in their homes at the time.
“This situation kept repeating itself and I found it completely unacceptable. I tried to convince the members of the group to set up a shelter, and tried to discuss options for raising funds, but nobody was interested. This situation could not go on, so I had to do something about it. This is why I decided to break away and set up a shelter myself.”
Over the years there has been an increase in interest in animal welfare in Japan, resulting in rising demand for animal rescue, which put animal welfare groups under enormous pressure. Isabella felt that the people in her local group had become totally overwhelmed by how deeply they had become involved in their activities.
“They were not a tremendously capable group as such, but they happened to be in the right place at the right time. I always felt, however, that they wanted to keep themselves an escape route. If you set up and operate a shelter, then cannot back out easily.”
Finding feasible and sustainable solutions:
After she decided to set up an animal shelter, Isabella started to think about options for funding. Soon an interesting idea emerged. Having owned animals in Japan, she knew how difficult it was to get somebody to look after them when she went back to Europe on holiday. To find a decent place had been proving a complete impossibility. Isabella reckoned that there was a definite need for a boarding facility that would give animals more than just a cage and also allow them to stay for a longer period of time. The perfect solution seemed easy enough: to earn money by offering a boarding facility for animals and then use this money to rescue abandoned animals.
“I sat down with my family and we discussed the idea, then looked for a suitable place. We found one and decided to go ahead. At first we wanted to get the business side set up and going strong before starting to rescue animals. However, the two sides ended up running parallel, as there were so many animals that needed rescuing.”
Set up in 2007, Animal Garden Niigata, the pet hotel, and Animal Friends Niigata, the shelter, have now been running for three years. There are six members of staff, of whom four are on duty each day taking care of approximately 180 animals, which include rescued animals in the shelter as well as pets in the boarding facility.
“The pet hotel is still not making enough money to fully fund the shelter. Hence I continue working part-time as a teacher at university and my husband is also helping out. With the two of us and the staff we can just about cope. Eventually I would like to go full-time but we need to get more financially stable first. I am cautiously optimistic though, as sales from the pet hotel have been increasing year by year.”
The facilities include 1,500 tsubo (approximately 1.2 acres) of land and some large buildings in the countryside at the foot of a mountain. The shelter is far enough from the nearest house to prevent any problems with neighbours. At Animal Garden Niigata, the animals are not kept in cages but in rooms, which is very different from the average pet hotel in Japan. A cat family, for example, occupies a two to three tatami-sized room. The dogs have a small outdoors exercise area and the members of staff also walk the dogs. Giving the animals space helps to keep their stress levels down.
“The pet hotel is increasingly in demand. Interestingly, we have quite a few customers from Tokyo, especially from the foreign community. People go back home for extended periods of time—three weeks or a month—and they want to see their pets in good hands while they are away. Niigata is 300 kilometres from Tokyo. However, since the animals can stay with us for a long time and they are in a better environment than they would be at a boarding facility in Tokyo, it makes it worth the journey.”
The larger issues at hand:
Animal Friends Niigata is trying to cooperate with the publicly run shelters in Niigata City and in Niigata Prefecture by taking on animals from these government facilities. This is, however, a complicated situation for Isabella and her team.
“One the one hand you just want to criticise everything, because the animal welfare situation is so horrific, but on the other hand you have to try and work with them. It is not that the people who work in the government facilities are bad. I know them personally by now and they are not bad human beings at all. They try to look after the animals as well as they can, which is a hard job for them, as the facilities are old and run down, with no heating. At least at the facility run by Niigata Prefecture animals are euthanised by injection, but at the facility run by Niigata City they are still gassed. In some ways the treatment of the animals is inhuman, but this is because the people at the facilities do not have the means to do anything else.”
There has been talk for several years about building a new public animal welfare facility for both the city and prefecture, but things have not been moving quickly. The plans are already made, but it is taking a long time to implement them.
“The biggest problem is the way the system is set up and how the rules and the laws are made, which is totally inadequate in this country as far as animal welfare is concerned. There is no strong Animal Welfare Law, for a start. There are no regulations for animal experiments. Dog fighting is still allowed. The regulations on trading animals are also very lax. The registration for pet shops, for example, is not properly enforced and there is apparently a lot of organised crime involvement. Hence, the local animal welfare groups will not touch these issues because they are afraid.”
The need for concerted action:
The local animal welfare groups work only on a very small scale, and seem to have little interest in joining forces with other groups in other areas. There is also no national animal welfare organisation. Isabella thinks that these are major factors hindering the progress of animal welfare in Japan.
“I and other foreigners who are involved in animal welfare in Japan have been thinking about setting up an umbrella organisation, a sort of a national shelter association, which would allow us to exchange know-how, pull resources, and help people who want to set up a shelter. Where influencing society and law-making is concerned, we also need to cooperate, because it is hard to change things unless you have a coordinated group that is pushing for change.”
Co-operation amongst foreigners who run shelters exists, but it remains very limited. Other animal welfare groups have considered setting up a national cooperative league for animal welfare in the past. They approached many Japanese groups but these were not interested. The Japanese animal welfare groups prefer to stay in their local area and just do their own activities.
“Yes, we do need donations to buy the things we need for taking care of the animals and for paying their medical fees. Donations of food or pet items would also be most welcome. Yes, we do need more people who are willing to adopt animals. If they can’t adopt, then foster an animal for a period of time. Most of all, however, we need people who can help us to expand to a national level; people with some courage and ideally with some know-how in fundraising and campaigning. I strongly feel that all of us who are actively involved in animal welfare should work together in a national cooperative league. To make this happen, it has to be concerned members of the foreign community, together with the local community taking action.”
To find out more about Animal Garden Niigata, please visit their website (in Japanese only) www.animalgarden-niigata.com/index.html or contact Isabella directly at email@example.com. To learn more about Animal Friends Niigata, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.