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Japan Saves Native Rabbits by Neutering Thousands of Cats

To protect the Amami rabbit, a "living fossil," Japanese officials are using TNR rather than mass killing. Other nations should take notice.

s.e. smith  |  May 11th 2016


Japan really loves its cats. This makes managing stray overpopulation in ecologically vulnerable areas a challenge, at least if you believe it should be done in a way that doesn’t involve cruelty to animals. Other nations, including Australia and New Zealand, take a horrific and merciless approach with “culling” that often uses brutal tactics such as trapping and mass poisoning, even though these methods often have unintended consequences. For Japan, these options were a nonstarter when looking at how to protect the fragile Amami rabbits of Tokunoshima island, so the nation devised a better solution: a mass spay/neuter program.

The sheer simplicity of this solution makes me wonder why other nations dealing with the very legitimate issue of overpopulation don’t take the same approach. It’s humane, compassionate, and straightforward, and here’s hoping that nations still on the mass-murder train take note. TNR is not just cruelty-free: In the long-term, it makes more sense. Japan’s group trip to the veterinary office — 2,200 cats have been altered already, with around 1,000 to go — shows that it’s possible to control a very large population of strays effectively, and to the benefit of all parties involved.

A woman playing with a cat at a cafe cafe.

Photo: Rachel H./Creative Commons

Amami rabbits are pretty special, and they’re an endangered species. Known as “living fossils,” they occupy a really important evolutionary missing link as an ancient relative of modern bunnies. They rely on forested woodlands for habitat, and like other rabbits, they nest at ground level. Deforestation is a serious problem on Tokunoshima, one of only two places in the world where the rabbits still survive, and they also fall prey to hungry stray cats and dogs, along with mongooses. As is common in other regions of the world, stray cats tend to shoulder an unfair amount of the blame for the declining rabbit populations, but they’re definitely an issue.

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A preserved specimen of an Amami rabbit from an exhibit in the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo. Photo by Momotarou2012 / Creative Commons

Japan is attempting to get the island and surrounding region certified as a World Natural Heritage Site, but that certification requires applicants to take aggressive steps to protect native plant and animal species. These steps include addressing declining rabbit populations, but when officials realized that cats were a big part of the problem, they had to think carefully about what they wanted to do. If they followed the lead of trendsetters elsewhere in the world, they would have collectively killed the cats, undoubtedly catching pets and other animals up in the decimation. The move would also have been incredibly unpopular in a country where cats are taken so seriously that people build shrines to them after their deaths, and hold massive funerals for beloved feline public figures.

A shrine to a dead cat at Jindaiji in Tokyo.

Inside the Jindaiji shrine.

One of the most emotionally moving parts of my visit to Japan last year was a trip to Jindaiji in Tokyo, a massive shrine to Japan’s beloved pets, including cats, dogs, and rabbits. A nation that takes pets so seriously doesn’t seem like the kind of place that would view a mass slaughter very kindly.

Hence the idea to hold a spay/neuter program instead, as reported by Inside Japan, including offering free spay/neuter services to cat guardians. The island is working with an animal welfare group to have veterinarians from Doubutsu Kikin (Animal Fund) spay and neuter the cats, tip their ears, and release them back into the wild — and it’s also holding adoption programs for people who are willing to commit to keeping their new feline friends indoors for life.

Playing with a cat at a Japanese cat cafe.

Our own Louise Hung caught in the act at a cat cafe.

The program will remain ongoing to keep stray populations stable and eventually push them down to a more manageable level. Because a single cat can produce a lot of kittens, if officials on the island don’t stay vigilant, the problem will recur. Officials claim they’re already seeing an uptick in the rabbit population in response to the program, and we hope they will consider extending similar compassionate overpopulation controls to dogs and mongooses.

A temple cat in Japan.

Photo: Jessica Paterson/Creative Commons

Other nations have similar conflicting situations in having to deal with introduced predators that threaten native prey species who’ve not evolved adequate defenses. These nations should take note of Japan’s success here. It is in fact possible to address an out-of-control stray population without cruelty, and to create a long-term, sustainable solution. In this instance, releasing altered cats back into the wild also ensures that new cats — including unaltered cats who will be able to keep breeding — won’t move in. By contrast, killing cats creates ecological openings for other predators to occupy, perpetuating the cycle.

This isn’t just the right ethical move; it’s also the right environmental one.

Top Photo: Andy Smith/Flickr