ARK Saves Abandoned, Abused, Stolen, Sick, and Homeless Animals in Japan

By Liz Oliver MBE
Founder and CEO, Animal Refuge Kansai

When I founded ARK over 30 years ago, I realized it would not be an easy task. I had already been involved with animals from an early age—dogs, cats, and horses—and later on worked with farm animals like pigs, sheep, and cows. But unlike the decision of someone to write a novel or climb a mountain, I soon realized there is no concrete goal, no peak in animal welfare, it is a solid slog all the way and one never reaches an end. Japan is a difficult country to work in, given the lack of animal protection laws and no education on pet keeping, where people just go to pet shops (mainly run by gangsters) and choose a pet like they would a TV or car, based on make, color, style, and price. Just as easily as they buy, people throw away their pet when the fashion changes.

I have fought several protracted battles with abusive breeding facilities. In Saga Prefecture, starving dogs were tethered so they couldn’t lie down. The facility was filthy, and someone would often tip off the violent owner-breeder that I was coming. He once chased me and threw objects at me. I also took in a battered woman who had asked for shelter for her three dogs, so she could leave an abusive partner. The woman now lives and works at ARK and I pay half her wage from my own pocket. I have been personally involved in countless dramatic and heartbreaking rescues, such as saving 23 of 97 dogs that were kept in atrocious conditions in Kansai; some had already died, others had to be put down.

I also spent 17 years trying to stop an alcoholic hoarder feeding puppies to adult dogs. I eventually convinced her to let ARK spay the females. She agreed, but then demanded them back. The drunk hoarder brought petrol cans to ARK and threatened arson if I didn’t return the dogs. I complied. The hoarder later gave the dogs to ARK after being jailed for drunk driving. After release, the hoarder burned her own house down, killing herself and several dogs. ARK took the surviving dogs, with one becoming a much-loved office pet until he died at 17.

Another case involved a gangster who owned a dog named Ebisu and his siblings. He was murdered as the terrified animals hid in cupboards. Ebisu was later rehomed at 17 to a family in Kamakura. Since opening a Tokyo office in 2005, I have brought charges against local animal abusers and stood up to threats from scammers. ARK has inspired and mentored many animal welfare NPOs in Japan, including Heart Tokushima.

But while we may criticize or complain about irresponsible pet owners, we too, who run shelters to help these unwanted pets, have a responsibility to make sure our standards of pet keeping are also up to scratch. Before we take this on, we have to ask ourselves “Do we have enough space?” in relation to the number and type of animals in our care. “Do we have enough help?” in the form of staff, family, or volunteers. Or “Do we have enough money?” Although our aim is not to make money like a business, we need money to fully operate.

ARK has been so lucky in all these things. In the beginning, I relied on friends to help and as time has gone on, we have had the support of a wonderful army of volunteers. Although we now have staff to help, we rely on our loyal volunteers. Before the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake, the volunteer movement in Japan was in its infancy. However, we were inundated with volunteers, some with animal welfare experience from overseas, others from all over Japan. That earthquake and its aftermath was a watershed moment for ARK. In one year we took in over 600 animals ranging from dogs and cats to rabbits and poultry. Since then we have taken in animals from the Tohoku earthquake and most recently, this year, a few animals from the Noto earthquake. We have also been able to help some Ukrainian refugees fleeing from the war there with their pets, now in Japan.

Dedicated volunteers at ARK

Despite many setbacks—such as threats of violence and arson by gangsters, hoarders, criminals, as well as earthquakes and near bankruptcy—ARK continues to operate effectively, expand, and enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with respected overseas organizations, donors, adopters, supporters, volunteers and authorities.

ARK has formed strong alliances with reputable global charities—such as Dogs Trust UK, Cats Protection UK, Battersea UK, JAWS London, and Helen Woodward US—which often train ARK staff and provide valuable insight and critical financial help.

Dogs Trust UK is the country’s largest dog welfare charity. Adrian Burder, former chief executive officer of Dogs Trust UK, said of ARK’s Sasayama refuge: “The facilities are absolutely stunning. The location and housing units are among the best I have seen anywhere in the world, and the quality of the build is extraordinary. We are very proud to have been able to play a small part in this project, but we know that Elizabeth still has big plans and we are keen to be a part of that moving forward”. The Sasayama project is being used to show similar organizations around the world what can be achieved. “Something like this helps to raise the status of dogs in societies,” Burder added. ARK is adding a state-of-the-art cattery to Sasayama funded by a recent bequest.

In 2008, ARK was accepted as an International Associate Member of the RSPCA, and Japan granted ARK Nintei status in 2016 (achieved by only only 3% of NPOs), which has been extended until 2024. ARK keeps excellent connections with the international community, who often adopt our dogs and cats—and even rabbits and guinea pigs. Indeed, ARK recently temporarily took in a cat owned by a Ukrainian refugee waiting for animal-friendly accommodation in Tokyo.

ARK has many animal welfare contacts around the world, especially in the UK. Every year we attend an International Companion Animal Welfare conference run by Britain’s famous Dogs Trust. They have offered us support and encouragement over the years. Their trainers have visited us and some of our staff have trained at one of their rehoming centers in the UK. It is important to us that we keep up these international connections. From now, we hope to move forward, having established a Tokyo office and a brand-new facility in Sasayama. Whether you are here from abroad and don’t speak much Japanese or are Japanese, we welcome you as a volunteer.

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