The aging inhabitants of Aoshima, popular among tourists for its population of some 200 free-roaming cats, recently decided that it was time to put a stop to the island’s continually expanding feline population. With support from the Dōbutsu Kikin animal welfare fund, volunteer veterinarians arrived and performed 172 spaying and neutering operations in one day.
Nine Humans, Hundreds of Cats
The island of Aoshima, part of the city of Ōzu in Ehime Prefecture, is known as “cat island.” Its furry population makes it a popular destination for many cat lovers, including foreign tourists. Despite this, the islands human residents—who number just nine—recently decided that it was time to put the brakes on the island’s constantly growing cat population. Why did they come to this decision?
Aoshima, which lies off the coast of the Nagahama district of Ōzu, is a sleepy settlement, with neither tourist accommodations nor even a single vending machine. It is home to well over 100 cats, though.
Aoshima and its feline population became known to the wider world five years ago, and ever since then, tourists have visited from all over. But the declining number and advancing average age of the island’s inhabitants led them to make a major decision about the cats’ future.
Canceling the Cat Population’s Rise
On October 2, 2018, the number of humans on the island more than doubled overnight, with the arrival of a group of professionals bringing dozens of cages with them. Sagami Kunihisa, head of Dōbutsu Kikin, spoke about the organization’s plan to neuter or spay the cats on the island over three days.
A 68-year old island resident summed up the decision to control the cat population this way: “One person has already left the island this year, and another is preparing to leave. Given our small numbers and advancing age, it’s becoming more and more difficult to feed all the cats and take care of them. Things are different now than they were three or four years ago.”
Five years ago, the island had a human population of 16. But now only nine remain, and all are aged. As residents left and the population grew older, a few dozen cats were neutered or spayed, but that had little effect on their ever-growing numbers.
Ultimately, the islanders decided that all the cats should be neutered. Dōbutsu Kikin, founded with the goal of eliminating euthanasia of unwanted dogs and cats, has conducted over 20,000 sterilization operations on cats throughout Japan, free of charge. But once they arrived on the island and started trapping the cats, the Dōbutsu Kikin staff realized that the islanders had significantly underestimated the number of cats in their midst. The actual number was not 130 to 140, as expected, but over 200.
The following day, three veterinarians began operating, spending 1 minute to neuter males and 15 minutes to spay females. Once operated on, the cats were monitored to make sure they had completely recovered from anesthesia and for potential post-operative problems. All told, 172 cats, 97 males and 75 females, underwent operations—apparently the largest number of sterilizations ever performed in one day by the three veterinarians. After being cleared for release, the cats headed back out to their usual island haunts early the next day.
A 68-year-old man had mixed feelings about the project. “Thinking about all the time and money this has cost, it seems to me that the cats should just be left alone. But when we humans ultimately fade away, doing nothing for the cats is not an option.” Another resident, also aged 68, spoke: “It’s better to leave us alone. We—people and cats both—just want to carry on with our usual routine for the next few years.”
Aoshima’s human population seems likely to disappear entirely, yet the cats depend on humans for their survival. Perhaps the islanders’ decision is a chance for us to rethink the relationship between humans and animals.
(Originally broadcast in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on October 1, 2018. Translated by Nippon.com.）
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