Susan Roberts and David Wybenga anticipated that moving to Japan to teach English for a year or two would be a life-altering adventure. The Michigan couple expected to be awed by the ornate temples and bustling train stations, but what changed their lives was that which lived in the shadows of these iconic structures: countless homeless cats and kittens in need of help. The couple’s adventure has morphed into a 16-year odyssey that led them to create Japan Cat Network, one of the country’s largest fostering, rescue and trap-neuter-return (TNR) organizations that’s changing the way the Japanese people address their homeless cat challenges.
“We saw many cats around town that were in various stages of poor health,” says Roberts who lives with her husband Wybenga in Hikone, a town in central Japan. “It was shocking to us that the community could completely ignore what seemed to us such an obvious problem.”
When they rescued their first kitten they found out why: There weren’t any humane organizations or rescue groups to assist or guide people in efforts to help animals in need. This obstacle has discouraged others, but Roberts and Wybenga couldn’t turn their backs on the cats that needed help.
“The problem seemed enormous, and I wasn’t sure how much of an impact we could have,” Wybenga says.
But one by one, he and his wife fostered, rehabilitated and found homes for hundreds of homeless cats and kittens and set up a program that provides assistance and advice to caring cat lovers all over Japan. They also built a shelter and adoption facility at their home, which provides temporary housing for 49 rescued cats.
“We don’t have a humane society or other large active organization that organizes people and resources to push for the humane treatment of animals,” Wybenga says. “What we do have is a number of people who have dedicated a good deal of energy to making their local situation better.”
While the Japanese love to pamper their pets with everything from designer clothing to expensive massages, homeless animals are left out in the cold. Since only about 30 percent of pets are spayed or neutered in Japan, the problem is growing.
“If we want to change public opinion, we’ve got to get people involved in the solution,” Roberts says.
She and Wybenga hope to stop future generations of homeless cats from being born by promoting TNR as a humane opulation-control method, which is gaining momentum in Japan thanks to their organization’s efforts to offer free trap rentals, training, fostering and adoption services, and information about low-cost spay/neuter options.
“Basically, we have become the help-line for anyone with a desire to help cats,” Wybenga says. “When we first started, we felt completely alone. We want people to know that they don’t have to feel like that.”
The positive impact of Roberts and Wybenga’s efforts is not just being recognized by their community, it’s also inspiring kindness toward homeless animals.
“When out at one of the feeding stations not so long ago, we noticed that one of the friendlier feral cats had on a new collar and bell. He’d been in a terrible state when we trapped him for neutering,” says Roberts, who was pleased to find that someone has adopted the now-healthy tom. “He still stops by to say hello.”
Thanks to Roberts and Wybenga, their town and its feline residents have undergone a dramatic change since the couple first arrived in Japan 16 years ago.
“Many of the cats we saw were sickly, and I frequently saw dead cats along the roadside,” Wybenga says. “Now, our town has transformed. There are very few strays, and all are healthy. We almost never see kittens anymore. I like to say I
came for the culture and stayed for the cats.”
Cimeron Morrissey is a cat rescuer, award-winning writer and Animal Planet’s 2007 Cat Hero of the Year. She is a member of the board of directors of Homeless Cat Network, a no-kill feline rescue organization in the San Francisco Bay Area.