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Saturday, Sept. 18, 2004

Groups grope for way to turn closed schools into animal shelters

Staff writer

Animal rights groups urged the government this week to allow empty public school buildings to be used as shelters for stray cats and dogs.

The request was jointly submitted to the Environment Ministry on Wednesday by the Society for Protection of Animal Rights, a Tokyo-based organization that cares for these animals, and seven other groups. They also presented a petition signed by 30,000 people.

The organizations also called on the ministry to subsidize shelter managers.

SPAR leader Yoko Kaneki said there is a dire need for more facilities to care for abandoned dogs and cats. While several private organizations and individuals are currently taking care of these animals, many of them lack sufficient space, she said.

"They are keeping the animals in small cages," Kaneki said. "Such a situation is (itself) close to abuse."

Closed schools are ideal safe havens for unwanted animals, with playgrounds that can be used as dog runs and swimming pools that could be used to rehabilitate injured animals, Kaneki said.

According to the Environment Ministry, 113,653 abandoned dogs and 267,337 cats were put down by local governments in fiscal 2002, with their original owners having failed to reclaim them or new owners having failed to materialize. Some animal rights groups said that in many cases, the animals are destroyed within a week of coming into official hands.

The groups that submitted the request argued that if stray cats and dogs can be cared for at shelters, more animals could be saved and there would be more time to try to find new owners for them.

In response to the groups' request, ministry officials said they were not in a position to decide how to use closed public schools because the buildings are under the jurisdiction of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

According to the education ministry, however, the facilities are owned by local governments, and thus municipalities must decide how to use the buildings.

Currently, various civic activities take place at closed schools, including elderly-care services.

In fiscal 2001, 311 public elementary, junior high and high schools closed nationwide, largely due to a fall in the number of schoolchildren, according to the ministry.

Kaneki said the groups hope to find shelters not just to keep cats and dogs, but also to educate children by having them care for the animals.

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