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Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008

Briar Simpson, Tokyo representative for Animal Refuge Kansai, poses with her dog, Alpha
Best friends: Briar Simpson, Tokyo representative for Animal Refuge Kansai, poses with her dog, Alpha, with whom she spent six happy years until his death earlier this year at the age of 17. TAKAYUKI OSUMI PHOTO

Offering shelter from life's storms

New Zealander extends animals a helping hand


Staff writer

"It's the single most stressful job I've ever had. It's also the best job," says Briar Simpson of Tokyo's Animal Refuge Kansai.

"Just sending out one more e-mail can make the difference. It can mean 15 more years." And in Simpson's work, those 15 years represent a lifetime, the lives that she, as the Tokyo representative of Japan's most active animal shelter, helps save.

The New Zealand native, a resident of Japan for 16 years, has worked with ARK at its Tokyo office since shortly after its begin in 2005. She has been directly or indirectly involved in helping find homes for some 120 animals.

The youngest of three sisters, Simpson was born in Auckland and grew up in Wellington. "Animals were always a huge comfort for me," she says, describing how, from the age of 10, she volunteered at the local SPCA where, too young to be entrusted with walking dogs, she spent most of her time cleaning cages. She also fostered kittens and puppies and the adult dogs who would jump the shelter fence. Her experience from these early days serves her well today.

Also, her desire to work with animals was there from the very beginning. On a recent trip back to New Zealand, she found, looking through old papers and notebooks, reference after reference to this dream. "Written across one page was the simple statement 'I want to help animals,' " she says.

Though her current work with animals comes as no surprise, working for an NPO in Tokyo is not the form Simpson initially envisioned her lifework would take. "I went into business with the idea that I would become wealthy and then be in a position to help animals," she says with a chuckle. After receiving a business degree in finance in her homeland, she came to Japan and completed her master's in international trade at Waseda University. Wanting to volunteer at a shelter, she heard of ARK, contacted them and was offered a job at its then new Tokyo branch.

Simpson's current role at ARK, a shelter founded by Elizabeth Oliver of England, is simply put, "to coordinate the whole thing," from finding foster homes and permanent homes for animals, to PR, fund-raising and educational programs for children. "Basically, I do everything from cleaning the toilets," Simpson, 37, says, again with her easy laugh. Somewhat ironic is the fact that "90 percent of my work is helping people. We bring together those who need help with those who want to help and the result is we help an animal."

Though a long way from home, Simpson was perfect for the job in Tokyo. In addition to excellent Japanese, her experience with animals is something often found lacking here. "I think I bring a lot to the job," she says with amicable confidence. "I've been a volunteer, a foster parent, I know what it's like to want to help but not be able to help. I know what it's like to want to help a kitten but not know what to do, where to go," she says.

The job is stressful to be sure, though Simpson says the worst of the work, coming into frustrating contact with the snarl of red tape and bureaucratic thinking at Japan's pounds or trying to shut down a hellish breeding factory or other such cases of cruelty and neglect is more the realm of the group's founder, Elizabeth Oliver.

Simpson admits that if she were called on to try to deal with the horror cases, "I think I would lose my objectivity." Still, her present work with an endless stream of unwanted, neglected, abused, homeless, often traumatized cats and dogs, kittens and puppies, all desperate for homes, is no walk in the park.

Cases where animals are mismatched with new owners only to have to return to the shelter or cases where animals remain in the shelter for years Simpson sees as "failures" on her part. Why the harsh criticism? "Because," she says, "our animals are perfect."

Low points, Simpson says, are an everyday occurrence in her work. She claims she has come to terms with them and that nagging voice that asks "are we doing enough?"

"I've accepted that the work is never-ending" and tries not to burden other members of the staff with any personal emotional roller-coasters. Describing herself as "easy to get along with, not moody" she is definitely even-keeled, but does admit to having a constant "certain level of tension." Being able to switch off is her biggest challenge. "I try to allow myself a bit of time to feel good about each success story."

Switching off when you can never forget that for every animal you save there are hundreds you didn't save, that you work in a country where 1,200 cats and dogs are killed every day, where shelters at which the animals are safe and cared for are rare, little-known and even less understood. Working with animals and in animal welfare in general has a very negative image in Japan," says Simpson. "It's surprising. I don't really understand it," she says. "When people learn I work with abandoned animals they look at me like I'm nuts or like I don't have enough to do. It's an image I want to change."

A natural diplomat, Simpson will try to explain the many cases of neglect by saying they arise from "a different understanding of animals" in Japan and a "lack of experience" with animals that can lead to unfortunate situations.

By any definition, there is a general lack of meaningful support. "Many people are afraid to get involved. They're afraid to initiate the process of rescue if they personally can't care for an animal." A dearth of legislation and enforcement of existing laws frustrates attempts to help animals. In many other countries, animal welfare agents could easily take an abused or neglected animal into protective custody. Not so in Japan.

"It's not all heartbreak," Simpson says, "and more people are getting involved." The change Simpson hopes for, she believes will come from Tokyo. Awareness of the animal-welfare situation is growing. More shelters or grassroots initiatives are sprouting up, many of them started by non-Japanese. An increasing number of corporations donating to shelters such as ARK is making it easier for others to follow suit. These budding trends ARK hopes will also help expedite its bid for NPO certification. Though the shelter has been a registered NPO since 1999, certification would add the attraction of tax-deductible donations.

And, of course, sometimes it's the animals that bring the greatest joy, as with the seemingly bleakest cases, when those thought "unhomable" find new homes and new hope and become Simpson's personal touchstones reminding her, above all, to hang in there.

Tetta and Bolo were two such gems. Tetta, a stray found in appalling condition ("there was nothing cute about him"), diagnosed with permanent neural damage to his eyes, was in very real danger of becoming one of the rare cases where the ARK veterinarians make the decision many Japanese cringe from and the majority of Japanese vets refuse to make, the decision to euthanize. With a last desperate plea, however, not only Tetta, but his sister as well, were able to find a home — a home together — with a loving and caring family in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Bolo was another high point. The golden retriever had a "pretty awful past but the sweetest nature ever." He also was an older dog and had a skin problem in need of regular treatment. Despite his lovable nature, Bolo spent long, lonely years at the shelter. In the end though, he too was able to find a home with an older couple from Niigata. "The older animals are so often looked over but they make wonderful companions," Simpson points out. "And they are so grateful to be out of the shelter."

Simpson herself adopted an 11-year-old dog from another shelter and spent several happy years together until his death this past January at the age of 17. It was obviously love.

In the end, being able to weather the heady mix of the best and the baddest against a backdrop of emotionally and often physically exhausting work, comes down to remembering who she really serves — the animals. And they, in turn, serve time and time again, as Simpson's raison d'etre.

"Whenever we're having an exceptionally bad day," she says, "we look at a particular animal's face, a picture in the office, maybe of an animal who was going to be gassed. And, it doesn't matter how rude someone is or how bad your day is going, how wrong something has gone, you know you're working for an animal that can't help itself. It's a very strong motivator."

ARK will be publishing its book "Rescue: Elizabeth Oliver's Animal Refuge," a photo collection and bilingual history and introduction to the shelter and its animals, on Nov. 6. A book signing by Elizabeth Oliver will be held on Sunday, Nov. 16 in the main (old) Kinokuniya bookstore in Tokyo's Shinjuku. For more information see the Animal Refuge Kansai Web site. In English at: www.arkbark.net/e/index.htm


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