Yu-naito, a crew member at Hobonikan Itoi Shinbun (a.k.a. ‘Hobonichi’), currently lives with Ushi (‘Cow’) and Mitsu, two cats that were saved from earthquake-ravaged areas of Fukushima Prefecture. Last year, she first took in Ushi and a cat named Uminori, both of which were found in the dangerous evacuation zone. This became the subject of a regular feature titled ‘Two Cats Come and Go‘ on the ‘Hobonichi’ site. Several months later, Ushi made a return to Tokyo. He was later joined by a female cat named Mitsu. We interviewed Yu-naito to learn about the special relationship that develops between cats and their volunteer caretakers.
A Relationship with Cats Begins through Volunteer Activities
– You took in cats that were displaced due to the Fukushima earthquake?
“Both of my cats were saved from the ‘No Entry Evacuation Zone’ in Fukushima. Though we found the owner of the black-and-white patterned Ushi, he came back to live with me after falling ill. As for Mitsu, his original owners are unable to care for him. Because we have been unable to find him a foster family in Tokyo so far, I am temporarily taking care of him.”
– So you are caring for both of them temporarily?
“After Ushi returned to Fukushima, he developed urethral stones. Because his owner lives in temporary housing and is caring for about 10 other dogs and cats, they are unable to provide him the individual care that he currently needs.”
– Have you always liked cats?
“No. I’ve actually been a dog-lover. My family always had dogs. Moreover, I grew up allergic to cats. Whenever I visited friends who kept cats, I would start to feel sick. Therefore, I thought that I would never be able to keep cats. However, I have always been an animal lover. During elementary school, I even looked after stray cats. Recently, I started meeting a lot of people who were taking in cats. This included Miu Sakamoto, who is an active protector of animals. Through Miu, I met her cat, Sabami. Because I live by myself, I deliberated on whether or not I would be able to keep a cat. Fortunately, all of my friends said that they would lend me some support. After Miu began working as a ‘walking volunteer’ for Mignon, she invited me to join. Through this activity, I met Yumori-san, Mignon’s organizer.”
– I see. So what led you to actually start caring for cats?
“At the same time that I was deliberating whether or not to get a cat, I noticed that there was a group of kittens hanging out behind our office. Because the road was used by many cars, I contacted Yumori-san to see what I should do. Because she said, ‘Let’s take care of them’, the next day we were out there catching them. After having them spayed and neutered, we took care of them until they were ready to be taken in. Because they were still kittens, the cats quickly became friendly with people. To find new owners, we put out an appeal on twitter. One of the kittens we found a new owner for was named ‘Sha-chan’. Soon after delivering her to a new family, Sha-chan threw a fit. In a panic, her new owners quickly returned her. This happened to occur at the same time I was babysitting Sabami for Miu, who was visiting New York. Because Sabami is such a ‘princess’, she didn’t take well to the new kitten. Because she was so upset, I quickly searched for a foster family for Sha-chan. Luckily, there happened to be someone who was at that very instant looking for a cat. They took her in.”
– You didn’t want to take in a cat of your own?
“I was originally thinking that it would be impossible for me to care for a cat while working. Though I was able to take in cats temporarily, there was a kind of internal braking mechanism that was stopping me from taking the next step. However, just a few days after letting go of Sha-chan, I began to feel lonely… When Sha-chan first arrived, she would scowl at me whenever I got too close. However, after just a few days, the distance between us disappeared and I was able to pet her. When we found Sha-chan a new home, I missed this openness. I actually became a little jealous of my friend who decided to take her in (laughs). Working as a care volunteer, you become happy when you are able to find a new foster family for a cat. However, you also become a little envious. It’s kind of a complex feeling. Everybody says to me, ‘Why don’t you keep a cat of your own?’ I can’t do it because I want to help as many cats as possible. I’m not even able to use words to explain the chaotic feelings that are always swirling through me.”
– Later, you took in a cat named Hen-chan?
“Yumori-san of Mignon contacted me and said something like, ‘We found a cat that needs care… I’m certain you will just love it.’ So it came about that I took in Hen-chan, who was about 4 or 5 years old at the time. Though I’m not sure exactly what happened with Hen-chan, a lot of cats are taken to public health centers because their owners have become ill. Mignon then rescues pets from such centers. Soon after taking in Hen-chan, a friend visited my house and instantly fell in love with the cat. However, because they lived in an apartment that didn’t allow pets, they first had to change homes before taking Hen-chan in. Unfortunately, on the one-year anniversary of having found a foster family, Hen-chan passed away. Several month before, cancer was discovered on Hen-chan’s chin. Though the cat braved many treatments, including having half of its chin removed through surgery, it was unable to beat the disease. Towards the end, poor Hen-chan couldn’t even eat by itself. It needed 24-7 care just like an elderly person. After some time had passed, thanks to some friendly pressure from myself and others, my friend finally took in a new kitten. Now, they are actually living with two cats.”
Current Circumstances – Earthquake Cats and Their Owners
– And then the earthquake happened…
“When the earthquake occurred, I couldn’t help but think of all the animal victims. Because Yumori-san of Mignon quickly responded by actually going up to the quake-stricken areas, I told her that as always, I’d be willing to take in some pets. In April, I took in both Ushi and Uminori, who were saved from the Fukushima evacuation zone. Though I had experience caring for cats at this point, I had never taken in two at the same time. Therefore, I was a little nervous at the time. I think that there were about three pairs of cats that were saved from Fukushima. One pair was taken in by a veterinary clinic. The second pair was so cute that they had no trouble quickly finding a foster family. I came to take in the final pair – a pair that could in no way be called ‘cute’ (laughs).”
– Your life with Ushi and Uminori became the subject of a feature within ‘Hobonichi’ (‘Two Cats Come and Go’). What was the actual experience of caring for them like?
“The cats were really affectionate with people. When they arrived at my house, I let them out of the cage. Instantly, they were rubbing themselves up against me. I don’t know their original relationship with each other. However, they were extremely friendly. Ushi had a feminine character and often licked Uminori. So it seemed to me like a mother-son relationship. However, the fact is that Ushi and Uminori are both male. The original owners took care of many local cats. Because they had them all spayed and neutered, I was at first uncertain as to what sex Ushi and Uminori actually were.”
– How was the original owner eventually found?
“When rescuing them, we put a letter on the door stating, ‘Your cats are being cared for in Tokyo, please contact us.’ I finally received contact from the owner about 3 months later. They then came to Tokyo to visit their cats. Though I was also caring for about 10 other cats in Tokyo, I was sad because I sensed that I would soon have to say goodbye to my feline friends – considering their original owner was moving into new temporary housing. The owners said to me, ‘We want to live with our cats as soon as possible.’ So, I took them back to Fukushima in September. Though I was living with them for only 5 months, it was so saddening to see them go. I almost felt like it would be impossible for me to continue working as a volunteer caretaker.”
– Though you would think it is easier the third time, it actually becomes harder to let them go.
“If I had just one cat of my own, I would be able to overcome the loneliness. However, when I have to let go of all of them at once, it is just too much for me… Luckily, just as I began to search for a new cat to foster, Yumori-san called me up and asked if I could care for Mitsu. Following the earthquake, Mitsu’s owner became unable to care for him. Tearfully, they asked Mignon to find a foster family for Mitsu in Tokyo. Unable to calm down even after living at Mignon’s kennel for a half-year, I came to take her in. However, even in my home, Mitsu is still stressed out. For example, she will hide away on the shelf for long periods of time. Her behavior has led me to see that all cats have very different characters. By talking with her everyday, however, I feel that the distance between us is getting smaller. That said, whenever someone visits the house, she will still run away and hide somewhere.”
– And then… Ushi returned.
“A while after taking in Mitsu, I took a trip up to Fukushima to see how Ushi and Uminori were doing. Because Ushi wouldn’t leave the litter box and seemed to be sick, the owner asked if it would be possible for me to take him to the vet. Because the owners had so many cats, it seemed that Ushi wasn’t getting proper attention. After taking Ushi to the vet, we discovered that he had urethral stones. In addition to having to change foods, it became important to regularly check the condition of Ushi’s pee. Though the owners were okay with this at first, it gradually became a burden on them. They half-jokingly said, ‘Ushi would be better off living with Yu-naito-chan.’ I was really surprised to see the owners show this kind of weakness. I figured that they were really going through a hard time. Therefore, in order to get Ushi through treatment, I took him back with me.”
– Did you set a deadline for how long you will take care of him?
“Though Ushi’s illness seems to be getting better, I’m now taking caring of him in order to prevent a relapse. If Ushi was able to return to the owner’s original house, which is a huge single-family home, there would not be a problem. However, because the ‘No-entry evacuation zone’ has not been lifted, they are unable to do so. Basically, the owners are still living with ten other cats in temporary housing. Therefore, I think it would be difficult for them to take in Ushi given the current situation. Nowadays, the owners and I are regularly exchanging letters. Soon, I will make a trip up there to ask if I can become Ushi’s permanent caretaker.”
The Joys of Volunteer Care-taking
– While caring for cats, what do you do about food and litter boxes?
“At first, Mignon provided the litter boxes and cat food. Later, I began to buy food by myself. I continue to use a brand called Natural Balance. I feed the cats exactly 5 spoonfuls of food per day. I put it into their plastic bowls a little at a time. If you have more than one cat, they will try to eat more than their share. Therefore, I give small amounts to each cat in their own separate bowls. However, both cats do share the same litter box. As for toys, I make them cat-teasers. They also absolutely love cat tunnels and cat ‘ships’. Though I usually search for such goods online, I also look for cute things at interior shops.”
– Even though you were originally a dog-lover, you’ve become very endeared to cats. What do you think the difference is between getting your own cat because you like them and taking in a cat as a volunteer caretaker?
“The good thing about being a volunteer caretaker is that you get to experience living with a wide variety of cats. Most people can’t take in a lot of different cats during their lifetime – unless they keep a large number of cats at the same time. As a volunteer, I can enjoy the unique appearances and characters of each cat. Right now, it feels normal to have two cats. However, it will definitely be difficult when it comes time to say goodbye to them. After letting go of a cat, I act like my heart has been broken to such a degree that the people around me start to worry. (laughs)”
– So being a volunteer caretaker is kind of like being in love. You live together and share the same daily routine. Unless you accept the commitment of being the cat’s lifetime owner, you known that you will someday have to say ‘goodbye’.
“That’s true. Though I understand that finding a permanent home for a cat is the best thing for its happiness, I can’t help but worry that it will be more happy with its new owners than with me (laughs). To continue volunteering, a person needs to be quite tough. If they aren’t, it will probably be emotionally taxing. Until now, the timing hasn’t been right to take in a cat permanently. When I cared for Hen-chan, I thought it would be impossible because of my job. So I let him go. However, I gradually realized that my current lifestyle will allow me to care for a cat. Therefore, I now think I’m ready to take in Ushi on a permanent basis.”
– What kind of feedback have you received regarding your ‘Hobonichi’ feature titled ‘Two Cats Come and Go’?
“I was posting what amounted to weekly essays. Whenever I wrote about cats, I would get tons of feedback. Readers would say, ‘I want to see more cats!’ Due to this reaction, our company president asked me to create a single feature about cats. So I came to write about Ushi and Uminori. From the beginning, I knew that I would eventually be separating with the cats. Therefore, I decided document our lives together. People would send me emails saying I should write more and keep the posts coming. However, other people showed me support by saying that the best thing for the cats was for them to be returned to their original owner. Some readers even claimed that they registered to do volunteer work with Mignon. Moreover, I received several messages from people who said that before reading my posts, they had thought that pet shops were the only places where people who wanted cats could get them. They had even gone on to take in cats from animal shelters. Even if it was in a small way, I think I was able to make some kind of contribution through my writing.”
It All Begins with ‘Nekommunication’ (‘Cat-Communication’)
– Are there any particular cat-related goods that you like, such as books and manga?
“Miu Sakamoto introduced me to Reiji Matsumoto’s ‘Torajima no Mime‘. I read it with tears streaming down my face while riding on the train. I also like Oshima Yumiko’s ‘Saba no Aki no Yonaka‘. Murasaki Yamada’s work titled ‘Showaruneko‘ is really interesting. In addition to showing the relationship between intelligent and slightly dumb felines, it captures the snobbish atmosphere of cats in a realistic manner. Though they can be a little offensive (laughs), I cant help but buy t-shirts and other clothing that features images of cats. My friends also buy me a lot of cat-related stuff. Moreover, I draw the illustrations that are used on Mignon’s ‘Inunekoushi Matsuri‘ (Dog Cat Cow Festival) goods.”
-Beginning with Miu Sakamoto, isn’t it comforting to have friends around you that also care for cats?
“I always have what are called ‘cat-relatives’ around me. Together, we started the ‘Sekaiichi Kawaii Neko’ (‘World’s Cutest Cat’) tumblr account (http://thebestcat.tumblr.com/). Of course, all we really use it for is to put up pictures of our own cats (laughs). When Hen-chan was sick as well as when Hen-chan finally passed away, all of my ‘cat-relatives’ did what they could to support me and cheer me up. When one of us travels or goes away on business, we try to help each other out. It will be something like, ‘I’ll take care of the cats in the day and you help out in the evening.'”
– I get the impression that people with cats communicate more deeply with each other than do regular ‘friends’. In an ‘ilove.cat’ manner, we are trying to bring attention to this form of ‘nekommunication’ (‘Cat-communication’).
“Even more than dog-related communication, I feel that cat-related communication is deep and sticky. When someone takes a dog for a walk outside, it will be possible for them to communicate with other people. The only cats that you are likely to find outside are strays. Because cats are always inside, owners develop a strong desire to show them to others. I think this craving is much stronger in cat owners than it is in dog owners. Cat owners sit in silence and email photos of their cats to like-minded people… This is what is quite simply called ‘nekommunication’ (laughs).”