Dark side of Japan’s pet boom
Approximately one and a half million unwanted dogs have been put to death in public animal management centers across Japan in the last ten years.
It was a very surprising figure for me as I had only been covering Japanâ€™s colorful and luxurious pet boom, so I decided to shed some light on the dark side of the industry.
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After more than a year of seeking permission, I was finally given the go-ahead to shoot an animal management center in Tokushima and I went on a 745 mile (1,200 km) long journey from Tokyo with my DSRL camera for shooting still and video.
After 8 hours of traveling by car and train, I arrived at the town where I would have two opportunities to witness the euthanasia treatment for unwanted dogs. It became one of the saddest assignments of my life.
There are seven cells in the center, one for each day of the week. When a dog enters the center, it is placed in the cell of the corresponding day, meaning that each dog has only seven days left to survive if it cannot find a new home.
The cells were clean and spacious although the dogs in the cells seemed very nervous. Some dogs kept barking and others were lying or sitting in a lethargic silence.
But most of them didnâ€™t forget to wag their tails at me even though they had already been betrayed by humans.
You might think only mixed dogs and stray dogs could have such a destiny but I saw several pedigreed dogs at the center. I was told by animal activists there has been an increase in the number of abandoned pedigreed dogs in urban areas.
During the recent pet boom, some people casually buy dogs which are displayed at a pet shop with little concern for their welfare and then, when they become troublesome, some owners discard them like unwanted fashion goods.
According to activists in the area, a hunting dog might be abandoned after a hunting season because it is cheaper to get a new one each season than keep the dog until the following season.
Every morning at 8:30, the button is pressed at the center and the death process is underway.
The dogs marked to die are herded into a so-called dream box and suffocated to death in the box by carbon dioxide. What I saw through the small window on the box right before the death treatment was a pitiful creature, his body trembling with fear. The image still haunts my mind.
The centerâ€™s workers suffer with the images.
Most of them chose this field because they like animals, but one of them has to press the button to inject the gas that suffocates the dogs which they have cared for up until that point.
They said they felt powerless, a mixture of regret and anger whenever they press the button.
What makes them sad and angry is that about one third of the dogs were brought to the center by their owners, who donâ€™t change their minds even when they are told of the fate of their dogs in seven days.
A lot of people might blame the workers for killing the animals but they are not bad people.
They want to reduce the numbers of dogs that are destroyed. Thatâ€™s why they made the decision to show their facility to my camera. While covering this story, I got a lot of help from animal activists and staff of the center. They agreed to help me because they wanted people to know the reality facing these abandoned dogs.
In fiscal year 2008, 84,264 dogs were put to death in Japan. That translates to 230 dogs killed each day, or more than one dog killed every 6 minutes of the day, every day of the year.