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Japan’s Cat Island: A bad precedent or new form of tourism?

Over 120 cats roam this island in Japan. And it's not the only one.

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    A cat carries a fish on Aoshima Island in Ehime prefecture in southern Japan.
    Thomas Peter/Reuters
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Japan’s Cat Island falls right on the line between a feline dream and a nightmare.

Aoshima, a small island in southern Japan, boasts a population of feral cats that outnumbers humans six to one. More than 120 cats roam the island, while less than 20 people, all between the ages of 50 and 80, live in the village.

The island is not the only cat haven in Japan. The country boasts at least 10 other “Nekojimas,” or cat islands. In fact, there are others located around the world, including Greece and Italy. The number of cats and resources on the islands raises the question of whether it is indeed a sanctuary for our furry friends, or a potential animal-rights issue.

Cats were brought to Aoshima about 380 years ago, when people migrated to the island. In the last decade, the population increased significantly due to unchecked breeding. Thomas Peter, a Reuters photographer, visited Aoshima at the end of February. Many of his photos show the cats roaming the streets, curled up in abandoned buildings, and begging tourists for food. One photo features a cat leaping at the photographer, attempting to “snatch his lunch snack.”

The island has become a hotspot for tourists, who come and wander the island in awe of the feline flocks.

"There is a ton of cats here, then there was this sort of cat witch who came out to feed the cats which was quite fun," said 27-year-old Makiko Yamasaki, reported Reuters. "I'd want to come again."

However, feral cats have proven to be a difficult problem for the Japanese government. With the increasing number of cats – who need to eat, and have limited food options without people to feed them – populations of endangered species, including various rabbit and indigenous bird species, have been threatened.

In an effort to control the ever-increasing population of stray cats, three municipal governments on Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture started a project to neuter all 3,000 stray cats on the island. So far, three cities have conducted the operation on 1,100 cats, according to The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper.

Governments have tried other methods of dealing with the overpopulation. Previously, towns enacted ordinances banning residents from letting their cats roam, but that proved ineffective. They also culled, or killed, many feral cats, trying to quickly reduce their numbers. With increasing pressure from animal rights activists, governments have reduced culling by using the Trap-Neuter-Return approach. The number of cats that were killed by the local governments dropped from 330,000 cats in 1991 to about 100,000 in 2013 according to the Environment Ministry. While animal rights groups are in favor of the change in approach, it does not help with the current problem of cat populations killing rare and endangered species.

“Leaving feral cats that have high hunting ability will put numerous kinds of wild animals on the island in danger of extinction,” said Nariko Oka, a senior researcher at Yamashina Institute for Ornithology.

Some partners in Tokyo try to train, domesticate, and rehabilitate the cats. According to the Japan Times, there are currently 140 animal hospitals that are part of the rehabilitation program. In terms of feral cat eradication, this is currently the most humane method.

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