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Thursday, Dec. 14, 2000
TO THE RESCUE
Network crusades for dogs in distress
If the pope were to visit Yokohama, he would have to consider Kiyoto Kitaura for sainthood, for the modern-day St. Francis is nothing short of a godsend to animals in need.
Watching Kitaura in action -- the sense of purpose, the unflinching courage in the face of horrid abuse and gruesome injuries -- can raise goosebumps. To see him move in for the rescue is nothing short of inspiring.
Eight years ago, after becoming disillusioned with large, bureaucratic animal welfare groups, Kitaura started Yokohama Dog Rescue, an action group to aid dogs in distress -- lost dogs, injured dogs, abused, neglected and feral dogs. Today, some 2,000 dogs later, his group fields 3,000 distress calls and brings in more than 100 dogs every year through his "3R program"-- rescue, rehabilitation and "rehoming."
YDR, with Kitaura, 47, at the helm, has as its backbone a network of people, including veterinarians, bound by their love of dogs. His OBs and OGs, or "old boys and old girls" as he calls the people who take in rescued animals either as foster parents or adoptive ones, are Kitaura's army, quiet crusaders who spread the creed -- to respect, care for and help the animals around you.
"We are the only people doing this in Japan and we have quite a high skill level when it comes to catching animals. People call us for advice and often it's enough just to give advice. But if we're needed we go."
In Kanagawa and western Tokyo, Kitaura's main patrol area, his expertise and the expertise of his network of "rehabilitators" and veterinarians is sought not only by the public, but also by local pounds and officials stymied by the difficulties of catching pain-crazed, starving or highly wary strays.
Yokohama Dog Rescue is not an animal collection service. It is meant for emergencies, accidents, injuries and cases of extreme abuse or neglect.
"We act as a support team, a backup team. We advise people on what to do and in most cases they can take care of the problem on their own. There's a big difference when you know somebody is there with you," Kitaura says.
Despite its name, Yokohama Dog Rescue is not solely restricted to aiding dogs. In Kitaura's living room there is a cat confined to a cage. The cat had been caught by a wire "trap" (a loop of wire that is slipped over an animal's head and tightened) which had been set to catch strays. This cat escaped but the wire remained tight around it and, as the animal grew, dug into its flesh. The wire, which was deep within the infected flesh, was finally removed after numerous operations. "It's amazing she survived at all," Kitaura says. The cat, however, is still emotionally scarred by the months of agony and is mistrustful of all humans.
The majority of animals Kitaura takes in are in need, first and foremost, of medical attention. One dog in Chiba, its paw caught in an illegal steel-jaw trap set by farmers, had tried in vain to free itself. It dragged the trap with it, the flesh and skin rotting away, leaving the leg useless. After lengthy operations and skin-graft techniques the dog is expected to soon be running on all four legs.
"It's a good thing when you have some of the best doctors in Japan around among your friends," Kitaura says, grinning at the understatement. The veterinarians offer their services for drastically reduced fees. Nevertheless, rescue and rehabilitation costs YDR some 8 million yen a year. Half the money comes from donations. The rest is provided by generous members. "There's never enough money," Kitaura says. YDR's extensive Web site (Japanese only) posts alerts for help with emergency cases -- appeals for special funds or people needed to temporarily take in a dog or help with feeding orphaned babies -- along with updates on the group's latest activities and the photos and background information on animals in need of homes. People can join YDR for 500 yen a month as a support member.
A dog whimpers quietly in the kitchen of the house Kitaura rents specifically to care for the animals. "He was the last dog left after the Kobe quake in one of the shelters," Kitaura says, explaining that the dog reacts negatively to womens' voices and other high-pitched sounds. "The vets called and asked if I'd take him in. I wondered what was wrong with him but the vets assured me nothing was. I found out later that he was blind, but no one had even noticed."
No place like home
Keeping the animals in a home environment is critical to both the rehabilitation and socialization processes. The close but free interaction between the dogs and their caregivers fosters mutual understanding and helps heal the dogs' mental and emotional wounds. "When you have a large operation, there isn't enough contact with the animals to even understand what's going on with them, and you can't influence them in a way that is going to help them," Kitaura points out.
"As you get them healthy again you come to understand their personalities and their special needs. Then they can go to a new home."
He points to a dog lying quietly but attentively under the table. "Like with Takashi here, I can say, 'he was feral but now he can go for walks. He's still afraid of noises but if you're careful he'll be OK.' Because you understand them you can find a home with people understanding of their special needs who'll take good care of them." Takashi, who was born and grew up on the Tokyo Bay wharf, never knew a human's touch until Kitaura succeeded in rounding him and 11 of his buddies up, but can now walk contentedly on a leash.
"Almost all the dogs have problems and some don't get better. But if you recognize them you can explain them and be up front in finding a home. The people who take animals from me expect there to be problems. They are warm, caring people, and they know what they can and cannot handle."
YDR finds homes for over 100 dogs a year; its goal is 120. Each dog that goes to a new home is likely to affect at least three or four people other than the new owners. "Those people become aware of what we do and aware that animals should be treated well and cared for. So the hundred or so dogs in turn affect hundreds of people. That's how the circle spreads," Kitaura explains.
Ten Shepherd-mix puppies and their mother romp noisily in the back room. They were discovered living abandoned under an apartment house. Oyabun greets Kitaura outside. He is one of 24 dogs and cats rescued during four trips Kitaura made to Hokkaido following the Mount Usu eruption. Hundreds of others starved to death during the evacuation.
The small house also aids another process -- changing peoples' preconceptions. "A lot of Japanese have this image that dogs are to be kept outside. So you have a lot of people thinking about getting dogs and they remember the dogs they had as kids that were always tied up outside," Kitaura says. "But then those people come here and see the dogs in the house. They see them playing and getting on with the others and hear they've been here six months or so and this contradicts the image they've had. Suddenly, they've got a new picture in their heads, a new possibility. In most cases, the dogs they take eventually find their way into their homes."
Later, Joanna, the mother of the 10 puppies Kitaura found under the apartment house, rides happily in the car with him, her head resting on the back of the front seat. Kitaura gives her an affectionate rub and says, "Some of the dogs just find their way into your heart. You know, I think this one's going to be with me for a while."
Action before talk
Kitaura is openly critical of some of the best-known animal welfare groups (none of which have been profiled in this series), claiming they are rampant with questionable practices and misappropriation of funds. Rarely, he says, does the money go directly toward helping the animals. "The animals' interests are no longer being watched out for. A lot of the groups are about nothing more than the people running them," Kitaura says. More importantly, the ability to act quickly, the very essence of rescue work, is lost in the large organizations, ensnarled in politics, and private and sponsor-related interests.
"The groups are always talking about plans and about 'next year.' I think next year can wait. It's the things in front of you, the animal that's in need right there in front of you that you should help. There's so much talk about improving the awareness for animals and plans and programs, but I think that when you help an animal and other people see that something changes in those people. That's how things improve."
Yokohama Dog Rescue can be contacted at tel: (045) 825-5991, fax: (045) 825-5992 or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org For more information see the group's Web site (Japanese only) at: www.corcocu.co.jp/YDR. Donations can be made to postal account no. 00230-2-0074212, Yokohama Dog Rescue. Anyone with comments or knowledge of people working for the good of animals can contact Barbara Bayer at email@example.com (Japanese or English).