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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2000

Rescue center flies in the face of despair

Staff writer

Passersby are sure to do a double take when they see the wooden building on the corner of the busy intersection in Kawasaki, 15 minutes walk from Musashi Nakahara Station.

Set back from the road, with potted flowers and small tables out front, it looks at first glance like an outdoor cafe.

From a two-story-high "flying cage" to the right, however, come the squawks, screeches, chirps and coos of an assortment of birds; doves, starlings, magpies, pheasants and quail. Through a window one can see cormorants and ducks swimming in a pool and three stories above, a peregrine falcon swoops from one end of its enclosure to the other.

It could be a zoo, or a large pet shop. Puzzling, however, are the large white letters on the front of the building that read: "For all people -- consideration and appreciation. For yourself -- effort, courage and joy."

This is the Kawasaki Wildlife Volunteer Center, privately run by veterinarian Kunitoshi Baba.

Baba founded the center in 1997, with loans he took out himself for some 150 million yen. Private citizens who find injured or weakened animals, predominantly birds, bring them to the center where Baba treats them free of charge, assisted by workers from his small-animal practice nearby, as well as volunteer staffers.

Many birds are also transported to the center every time there is an oil spill in Japan, because Baba, who knows more about cleaning oiled birds than anyone else in the country, is always one of the first on the scene to direct rescue efforts.

Volunteers, mostly office workers, but some budding veterinarians as well, come to offer their help with the animals, which number about 300 in the "peak" summer season. The volunteers prepare food, feed the animals and clean the center, also assisting in the treatment and release of birds back into the wild.

The center is the only one of its kind in Japan, and, according to Baba, the nation's first wildlife rescue center. It rose out of necessity, and also out of Baba's growing embarrassment and determination to do something about Japan's apathetic attitude toward wildlife protection.

On a wing and a prayer

Baba started his veterinary practice in Kawasaki's Nakahara Ward 30 years ago. At the time, the Tama River environs were still relatively undeveloped and full of wildlife. As the area was built up, however, habitats were destroyed, and a lack of food and increase in hazards took its toll. "Children fishing at the river would come across birds and animals and bring them to me, the closest vet. I couldn't turn them away. After all, I was an animal doctor. I made my living from caring for animals. I felt I had to help."

Years passed and the experience Baba gained, coupled with extensive self-study, made the veterinarian proficient in treating wild animals, especially sensitive birds. His reputation throughout Japan grew. Baba, however, is unimpressed. "I became known because there is nobody else out there. Nothing is being done."

Compared with rescue centers in Europe and the United States, Baba says his center, at 165 sq. meters, is pathetically small. He is appalled at the government's lack of concern for environmental and wildlife protection and the 52-year-old doesn't hide his disgust with the situation.

"You'd be astounded if you looked into the Environment Agency. It has no money. It's really pitiful, with no budget," he says.

The government's single-minded focus on the economy at the expense of environmental cleanup and protection had always been a sore spot with Baba, but the 1991 oil spill in the Persian Gulf brought things to a head. "I felt Japan had to do something to help," he says. "I went to the Environment Agency and said, 'send me to the Gulf as a representative.' " After returning to Japan he started off on what would become years of lobbying politicians to build facilities or allocate funds to help rescue injured and starving wildlife. "It'd be different if there was still ample nature," he says. "But the habitats have been destroyed. There isn't enough food. I feel it's our responsibility to help."

Baba, who holds lectures on wildlife conservation and care throughout Japan, is also critical of his fellow Japanese and fellow vets. "There are lots of bird associations and such, but none of them do any sort of rescue work. It's typical of Japanese to form groups, hold meetings, do nothing and be satisfied with that. If there was something behind the groups, you'd see shelters and rescue centers, concrete facilities. In England and the United States people call quick meetings and immediately get into action."

Turning point

In January 1997, Baba again dashed to the rescue of oil-afflicted birds when the Russian tanker Nakhodka broke up in the Sea of Japan. The disaster, after fruitless years lobbying politicians, proved a turning point. "After that," he says, "I decided I had to do something if no one else would. That's when I decided to build the center."

Baba's efforts to move the politicians are finally paying off. A new wildlife center will be built next year in Kawasaki's Todoroki Park, next to Verdy's soccer stadium. Five times the size of Baba's center, it will be run jointly by Kawasaki city and Baba and volunteer staffers. "It'll be for rehabilitation. I'll still do operations and give treatment here," Baba explains, adding that he also has plans to expand the current center, which will be used for more educational purposes as well.

Baba already holds classes for children and monthly courses in English on cleaning up oiled seabirds at the center. The courses teach Japanese rescue workers necessary skills, and help them familiarize themselves with English so they can be immediately useful when volunteering for an overseas operation, he says.

As the words on the front of the center indicates, Baba's concern extends to helping people as well as wildlife. He believes strongly that a nurturing of respect for life is essential in today's society, and a lack of this essential ingredient is behind many of the problems with youth today. Cultivating a respect for living creatures is one of the goals of his work at the center, where he encourages people to come even if just to observe. "When you have that respect, then caring for wildlife, caring for the environment, and thinking about environmental issues will come naturally. When you have a respect for life you learn to accept others. That's a basic thing that is not being taught to kids today and I think you can learn it from nature," Baba says.

"Children, especially, learn a lot from the animals, not only how they live, but that life is hard and things are tough and you've got to keep trying, to keep fighting. You learn to say, 'hey, I may be weak, but even so, it's important to keep at it.' "

Baba's message to people is a simple one. "Sure, we always need help at the center, but to me what's more important is people's attitudes. I'm saying, change what's inside. Change your thinking. Be more human, more humane, toward other humans and toward other living creatures. It's a cycle, a circle," he says emphatically.

"Don't wait for the politicians to change things or for the politicians to change. First, change yourself."

Kawasaki Wildlife Volunteer Center can be contacted at (044) 777-8243, fax: (044) 777-8368.

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