The Meerkat Incident, Or: What really (really, really) winds me up in Japan

When I was about 6 years old, I found a ladybird in my grandma’s garden. I loved it so much that I kept it in a glass jar and fed it chocolate. Long story short, the ladybird died, due to eating the chocolate. This happened over 20 years ago but to this day, I haven’t forgotten about it and I still feel guilty. Guilty because the love I thought was right for the ladybird was what made it suffer and eventually killed it, which I only understood when it was already too late. I was a child and simply didn’t know the needs of a ladybird, so I automatically assumed that what was good for me had to be good for the ladybird, too.

Luckily I outgrew this egocentric perspective and learnt about the needs of wild and domestic animals. For example, I could go on all day raving about wanting to have bunny rabbits (and those who know me have heard this too many times, I’m sorry!), but I don’t actually buy them because my apartment is too small and I don’t have a garden. Owning bunny rabbits at this point in my life would be selfish and cause them to suffer. I don’t want that.

Based on observations in every day life and talking to people who do have pets in Japan, I claim that a great amount of people here don’t seem to have outgrown the ’ladybird-love-stage’. Their treatment of pets, dogs for example, is something I just can’t wrap my mind around.

As a comparison, let me describe our family dog back home: He loves to run across the fields behind our village. On some days we have to keep him on a leash because he gets really jumpy and runs off when he hears loud noises like planes or tractors (yes, he’s a weird one). He hates the leash though and keeps turning his head, looking at us as if to say: “Set me free, what the hell?!“ He also doesn’t miss an opportunity to jump into puddles on a rainy day or the small river nearby. He usually gets back to the house dirty, wet and with leaves or bugs stuck in his fur, but happy. Because that’s what dogs do.

Not in Japan.

In Japan, dogs get dressed up like little dolls, hair clips stuck to their fur and pushed around in strollers that would better be suited for a human baby. But that’s exactly what dogs are to a lot of people in Japan – babies or baby substitutes.

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In my very humble opinion:

Dogs don’t belong in strollers. They belong on the ground. They have legs to walk and if they don’t use them, it makes them ill.

Dogs don’t need to be wearing clothes. They have fur. If anything, having something wrapped around their body makes them uncomfortable, no matter how fashionable. Dogs don’t care about fashion. (I’m working on a photo series about dogs in Japan – bear with me if you dare.)

Dogs aren’t people. I wish people would stop treating them as if they were.

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Sadly, this post isn’t only about the dogs in Japan. Last week, I came across something even more disturbing. And no, I don’t mean seeing a man walking a rabbit on a leash.

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A friend and I walked by a pet shop and we decided to go in, because who doesn’t like looking at cute cats or dogs or bunny rabbits? What we found instead in this very ordinary pet shop was shocking. The animals in there, that any idiot walking in from the street could buy, were animals you’d expect to see either in the wilderness or in a zoo: Monkeys, exotic birds and, worst of all: A single meerkat.

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While the lonely little meerkat was looking at me through the bars of its cage, I kept thinking: Who in their right mind would buy a single meerkat and keep it as a pet?? The most important fact about meerkats is that they are gregarious animals who live together in large communities, carefully looking out for each other. My friend and I simply couldn’t imagine who would be so cruel and completely disregard the intrinsic needs of an animal out of selfishness and wanting to own something ’cute’.

Yesterday, only a week later, we got the devastating answer. My friend sent me a picture of someone walking a meerkat on a leash in central Tokyo, dressed in a ridiculous costume. Not the person, the meerkat. When I saw this, I almost cried from anger.

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This has nothing to do with cultural differences. This is just plain wrong.

Japan is amazing at treating each other as human beings, but until today, animals got the short end of the stick. I hope with all my heart that this will change.

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