I grew up in an era when a person’s general sanity meter was determined by how many cats they owned. It started at one cat, which usually said, “I’m single, but not for long.” With two, it was: “I’m a little crazy, but clearly I love animals, and isn’t that charming?” With three or more, it was: “I am certifiably insane and single to the point of being contagious, please keep ten feet away from me at all times so you don’t catch the crazy.”
In short, the term ‘Cat Lady’ used to mean something. After I moved to Fukushima, I heard that one of my closest neighbours was a North American woman who took care of forty or fifty cats in a single house. My math was clearly broken, because I don’t think my established ratio of cats-to-sanity had ever measured anything that high. What is this place all about? How can a woman manage to take care of so many animals by herself? And just how crazy is she?
The Japan Cat Network (JCN) is situated along a country highway in Inawashiro, Fukushima, which happens to be about ten or fifteen minutes from my house by car. A big ol’ brown house down the road from Hiro’s famous burger shack, the shelter looks a lot like any other house along the highway stretch. Once inside, you enter a pretty enormous common area that functions as a free hostel for its volunteers and visitors, as well as a couple of enthusiastic and sociable dogs who will probably be too lazy to get off their sofa-beds to greet you at the door (unless you make the mistake of picking up a leash, which is a terrible idea).
There are several rooms that house a few different varieties of kitty cat. There is the quarantine room, which is used for sick or loner strays, usually the kind that would sooner remain anti-social. There are a couple of rooms that serve the rescue cats that are learning to adjust to the company of both humans and other cats. The final room over is basically heaven for cat lovers, because it’s the social kitty room. You walk in, and at least nine or ten cats will immediately present themselves at your feet, meowing and purring for pets and cuddles and playtime. It’s kind of surreal the first time you do it. I recommend the catnip. There’s something truly awesome about watching a pile of kitties rolling around and hallucinating on a carpet, their minds having gone to places no human could possibly understand outside of the 1960s.
At the center of this rescue organization is a pretty remarkable woman named Susan. I met Susan through my best friend, who was travelling around Fukushima acquiring footage for a documentary pitch, and he introduced us. Susan didn’t exactly fit the build that I had in my head for ‘Cat Lady,’ because she clearly wasn’t insane, and seemed to be doing what she was doing out of both compassion for the animals and empathy for the human beings that once loved them. As the head of JCN, Susan rescues and tends to pets that were abandoned after the Daiichi power plant failure by going into the evacuated zones of Fukushima, and working with select individuals with access to the exclusion zone. She does this for the animal’s sake, but also so their owners have a chance of reuniting with their loved ones. A lot of these pet owners were forced to move into new housing that wouldn’t allow animals, so many were left behind.
I went with Susan on one of these trips to the evacuated zone. We filled up food bowls for the cats who didn’t want to be rescued, looked for strays that needed a helping hand, and dodged the local community police that presumed us to be eco-terrorists of some kind. Most of these animals have owners that will never return to them. The ones left to the wild face the dangers of seasonal shifts in temperature, other wild animals and starvation. The ones Susan picks up have a real chance.
JCN is always look for donations and manpower to keep the organization running, as well as potential adopters or foster parents to temporarily take care of its feline and canine inhabitants. We want to find temporary foster and adoptive homes for every single cat and dog at the Network, and we need volunteers and donations to keep the program running. If you are interested in paying a visit, fostering a cat, lending your time, making a donation, or just want a nifty virtual tour of JCN’s digs, please visit the website at https://japancatnetwork.org/ .
Cat people. We may be a little crazy, but the fuzzy cuddles are worth it.