Strays become woman’s calling

It’s a typical evening in the Mercer-Tojo household. Susan Mercer, 37, has just settled down their 2-year-old for the night, tucking him in as he cuddles with five or six cats. Several dogs prowl restlessly, eager for a pat or a kind word. Scooping a kitten off the floor, Mercer settles down to wait for her husband, Hitoshi Tojo, who has gone to pick up two aging cats whose owner just passed away.

Mercer and her husband run Heart Tokushima, a nonprofit animal rescue and shelter serving Shikoku. But they do more than take care of stray animals. As Mercer explains: “We are helping people, the people who love these animals. Recently, we took in the two senior cats because the (deceased) owner’s elderly sisters had nowhere to keep them. Their only other option would be animal control, where the cats would be gassed. The family was so grateful for our help during their time of grief.”

Since its official founding in 2006, Heart Tokushima now houses more than 260 animals, bringing in local volunteers and volunteers from abroad. They helped find homes for or returned more than 100 animals in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, disasters in Tohoku, and currently run services to foster, sponsor or adopt a pet across Japan.

“We got involved with the Tohoku efforts the day after the disaster, and joined up with two other animal rescue NPOs that we had worked with in the past from time to time,” the Canadian says. “We made five trips to Tohoku and other animals were transferred down to Tokushima by the groups and volunteers we were working with at that time. We still have more than 40 disaster animals with us here. Most of the remaining animals were adopted by new owners as we were unable to locate or reunite them with their original owners.”

In her youth, taking care of animals was never in Mercer’s plans. “Growing up, I didn’t have an interest in animal welfare. We had pets, but it wasn’t anything I really thought about too deeply. At home in Canada, communities have the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) or animal shelters, so people do not generally walk by animals in need; strays will be picked up, because there is a system in place, a safety net for the animals. It might not be the best system, as many of the places practice euthanasia — but there is a good chance the organization will do their best to re-home them.”

Mercer’s early experiences in Japan proved there was no such system in Shikoku, and she eventually decided to start one.

Her path to founding Heart Tokushima wasn’t been easy. “From the moment we open our eyes until we sleep, it is hands-on animal care. It is challenging for my husband. It is challenging for me. I couldn’t do it without him. It would have been easy for him to just have left, but he saw the importance of what we are doing.”

Mercer, originally from Newfoundland, majored in psychology and criminology at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. She came to Japan soon after graduating in 1999. “I went to high school and university with a friend of mine who happened to come to Tokushima to teach English, and when I followed her over, there were five Newfoundlanders teaching English here. I planned to pay off my student loans, have some fun away from responsibility before returning to Canada to look for a job. I’m the only one still here.”

Early in her stay as an English teacher in Tokushima, Mercer found herself with a moral dilemma that led to her life’s vocation. “Two months after I arrived in Japan, near the English school where I worked, there was a kitten in a cardboard box outside the convenience store. Two days went by and the kitten was still there. My younger students all mentioned the kitten and I just didn’t understand why no one had picked it up or helped it. That night, I couldn’t sleep, I kept thinking — it was some kind of trigger in my mind — I kept thinking someone needs to help this cat. Eventually, I thought, maybe I need to help this cat.”

Mercer asked Tojo, her then-boyfriend, to help, venturing out in the middle of the night to pick up the kitten. “That was our first rescue and that cat is still with us, today,” Mercer says.

Joey, a female cat with a boy’s name, marked the beginning of Mercer’s chance meetings with strays. “A month after rescuing Joey, just outside my apartment building I found another emaciated kitten, and I took that one in, too, but after the third cat, a few months later, I started researching other options in my limited Japanese. The third cat was an injured cat, a feral cat with a broken spine. We took it to the vet and he recommended we just put it back, and if the animal wanted to live, it would. The other option was to take it to animal control, but over 90 percent of the animals there are gassed.”

In her research, Mercer eventually discovered Osaka-based ARK (Animal Refuge Kansai), just over two hours away. “I contacted Elizabeth Oliver of ARK and they helped with many of the animals that needed rescue in the beginning. It wasn’t the distance, but the number of cats and dogs in Tokushima that demonstrated that a no-kill shelter was needed in our community, too.”

In 2002, Tojo and Mercer married. By that time, Mercer had taken seven strays into their tiny apartment. An architect by trade, Mercer’s husband worked with a company planning and organizing construction. Mercer used her salary as an English teacher to finance the care of the animals. Gradually, the numbers increased, and Mercer and Tojo began renting out an old house to keep the animals, building up a network of volunteers to help with animal care.

“At that point I realized I couldn’t do it on my own, and I realized that something else needed to be done. I think my husband also gradually realized I was not going to change my mind about taking in strays, and that he needed to get into this as well to continue our life together.” They founded Heart Tokushima in 2006 and were awarded NPO status in 2010.

Volunteers raised funds for a central plot of land, and with the sudden increase of animals after the 3/11 disasters, Mercer pushed for a new location. Heart Tokushima opened their spacious facility in a mountainous area 20 minutes outside the city in 2012.

The property, located in a nonresidential area, also provides an apartment nearby for volunteers. As Mercer explains: “We work with the International Cultural Youth Exchange, so they send volunteers that want to come and help, staying in our free accommodation while they volunteer and see a part of Japan. We’ve had a Brit, a Danish man and a German woman in the past year; a girl is coming from England this month.”

In addition to the international volunteers, Mercer relies on local volunteers who help on the weekend. She and her husband are both full-time volunteers now, renting a small apartment in the city to live and traveling to the site every day for care and feeding. Their 2-year-old has “grown up with animals, since the day he got out of the hospital.” The couple expects their second child late this year.

Mercer’s goals are simple: “To find lifetime loving homes for our animals as well as to put more energy into community outreach and humane education in order to get to the root of the problem of unwanted cats and dogs in our community and throughout Japan.”

Mercer believes there are two main reasons for the continued problems in Japan. “Impulse buying or buying pets with no knowledge of the breed’s needs and characteristics can often lead to owners giving up their pets or abandoning them. Behind that we have the breeder-puppy mill problem.”

She also points out there is a “feral dog” population in rural Japan and thinks more education on the options available for controlling animal population, such as tagging or registering pets, reporting them missing or using spaying to keep populations lower, could help lower the root problems.

“There are many shelters, rescue groups and private individuals doing animal rescue work around Japan; in addition, many of the government-run animal control centers around the nation have managed to reduce the number of animals destroyed in the last 10 years. In Tokushima, however, the percentage of animals gassed remains high, still at around 90 percent,” she says.

“It’s hand to mouth in any kind of nonprofit organization that relies on donations from the public; there are really hard times but there are really good times. The bottom line is, the animals need care, they need to go for a walk, they need love and they need to be taken care of. It’s all things that need to be done.”

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