Heart to the rescue

Deana Stokes Sullivan
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St. John's native establishes animal welfare group in Japan

Ten years ago, Susan Mercer left St. John's to take a job teaching English in Tokushima, Japan.

She had just graduated from university in New Brunswick, where she had studied criminology and psychology.

"There were seven Newfoundlanders here in Tokushima - they were all teaching English. I came over to have a shot at it and planned to go home after a year or two," Mercer recalled.

Susan Mercer, originally from St. John's, is shown at home in Tokushima, Japan, surrounded by some of the stray and abandoned animals she's rescued. Mercer is a founder of Heart, an animal rescue organization in Tokushima. - Submitted photo

Ten years ago, Susan Mercer left St. John's to take a job teaching English in Tokushima, Japan.

She had just graduated from university in New Brunswick, where she had studied criminology and psychology.

"There were seven Newfoundlanders here in Tokushima - they were all teaching English. I came over to have a shot at it and planned to go home after a year or two," Mercer recalled.

But her life took a turn in a completely different direction, Mercer said, one that she had never imagined.

"I think, somehow, I was led here in a way and I was brought to this problem and I could do something about this," she said in an recent interview.

The problem is abandoned animals and what Mercer describes as a "low standard of animal welfare" in Japan.

"I think there's still a belief here that cats and dogs are like natural animals," Mercer said. "People see an animal on the street and don't do anything. They just leave it there. We do have a huge problem."

Every city in Japan has colonies of feral cats, Mercer said, but roaming dogs are more of a problem in rural settings, such as in Tokushima, than in urban centres, such as Tokyo and Osaka.

In the countryside, she said, you can go to any mountain or park and find abandoned dogs and cats.

Mercer met her husband in Japan. They married about nine years ago and, at that point, had plans to eventually settle in Canada.

Her concern about the animals led to her picking up stray and abandoned cats and dogs and bringing them home.

Mercer met a British woman in Osaka who lived in Japan for about 40 years and shared her concern.

"She began a shelter in Osaka, it's one of the biggest shelters in Japan," Mercer said.

When her apartment was beginning to get overcrowded with rescued pets, Mercer started bringing animals to her friend's shelter in Osaka, but she soon realized the extent of the problem was bigger than she could handle herself.

"So, I decided to start a group here and start to rescue and re-home cats and dogs from the area," she said.

About four years ago, Mercer and other concerned citizens, who came together at a symposium in Tokushima, founded a group called Heart to rescue abandoned animals.

Since 2006, Mercer said more than 400 animals have been rescued by the group and 300 of them have found homes.

"The amazing thing about it is we don't have a shelter ourselves," she said. "These animals are coming into our homes. We have foster homes as well. Our volunteers also take a lot of the animals."

Heart has a "no kill" policy. Mercer said rescued animals are only euthanized if they're sick or have major behavioral problems that training can't fix.

Mercer said eventually, she would like Heart to be able to establish a shelter in Tokushima. But she said attempts in the past haven't been successful because in Japan there's a negative image towards abandoned or stray animals.

She said Heart actually had two pieces of land where it considered setting up a shelter, but neighbours objected.

"It was the not-in-my-backyard kind of thing," she said.

Mercer said it concerns her that dogs and cats that are not rescued go to a local pound and are only kept there for seven days before they're gassed by carbon dioxide (CO2), "which is a very horrible death."

Last year, she said, about 3,000 dogs were gassed with CO2 in Tokushima, and in all of Japan, about 100,000 dogs are gassed each year.

Mercer said it took a while for Heart to get some veterinarians onside to humanely euthanize ill animals that it rescued, but now the organization has vets to call upon.

She said Heart volunteers meet three or four times a year with a panel of people, including veterinarians, education officials and local authorities, to discuss things like reducing the number of animals killed in Tokushima and taking steps to alter public perceptions.

Adopting pets isn't a popular thing to do in Japan, Mercer said, because there's a trend of buying the "fashionable breed of the day" from breeders.

Mercer has become so involved in her passion to save abandoned animals that she now teaches only about 10 hours a week and devotes the rest of her time to this cause.

She said her work is strictly volunteer and a lot of her salary also goes into her efforts. With the whole world facing economic problems, Mercer said Heart has recently noticed a decrease in financial donations.

The organization welcomes funding from supporters who can find more about the group online at www.heart-tokushima.com.

Mercer's husband has also been helping Heart. In the beginning, she said, he was a typical Japanese person with little knowledge or concern about the plight of abandoned animals.

"Once he understood how real the problem was, he took a complete turnaround, so he's quite dedicated now," Mercer said.

Her husband left a full-time job as an architect at the end of last year and now takes freelance work, while also helping her with Heart.

Mercer will turn 34 in June, and when asked about her original intention to return to Canada, she now says, "I'll be here until this problem is solved, until the day that they're not gassing any more animals."

She'd also like to see animal shelters established to raise the standard of animal welfare in Tokushima and all of Japan.

Geographic location: Japan, Tokushima, St. John's Osaka New Brunswick Canada Tokyo

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Recent comments

  • Tara
    December 11, 2010 - 20:56

    Two thumbs up to Ms. Mercer, and thanks to The Telegram for helping to get the story out about her efforts. I have been living in Japan quite some time and had never heard of this group until today. I hope she is successful in getting more publicity for her efforts in the future.

  • Dave
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    With so many cases of animal cruelty in the news here at home these days, it is so nice to read about the work of people like Ms. Mercer. Perhaps when her goals in Japan have been met, she'll be able to come home and join the few people and organizations here that are trying to do similar things.

  • Liana
    July 02, 2010 - 13:24

    This is Susan's sister wishing to express how proud we are of her dedication and tireless hard work involved in this venture. She is certainly making a difference and if all the kitty's and dog's could talk, they would have to say a big thank you for saving them and improving their lives!!!!!! Love you!!!!!

  • Andie
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    Two thumbs up for this story ! Thank you Mrs Mercer for your generosity ! Keep up the good work ! :)

  • Barb
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    What a noble cause Susan. My son and daughter did a small part when this feral cat around the woods where we live had 2 litters. We networked in the city, raised enough money to have the cat spayed, nursed the kittens for 6 weeks and then... We brought them to this wonderful woman in Bedford, who raises abandoned kittens to be fostered out and eventually finds them a wonderful home. Meatball, the mom lives in our neck of the woods and is cared by four families who love her. Cousin Barb

  • Dave
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    With so many cases of animal cruelty in the news here at home these days, it is so nice to read about the work of people like Ms. Mercer. Perhaps when her goals in Japan have been met, she'll be able to come home and join the few people and organizations here that are trying to do similar things.

  • Liana
    July 01, 2010 - 20:10

    This is Susan's sister wishing to express how proud we are of her dedication and tireless hard work involved in this venture. She is certainly making a difference and if all the kitty's and dog's could talk, they would have to say a big thank you for saving them and improving their lives!!!!!! Love you!!!!!

  • Andie
    July 01, 2010 - 20:05

    Two thumbs up for this story ! Thank you Mrs Mercer for your generosity ! Keep up the good work ! :)

  • Barb
    July 01, 2010 - 19:52

    What a noble cause Susan. My son and daughter did a small part when this feral cat around the woods where we live had 2 litters. We networked in the city, raised enough money to have the cat spayed, nursed the kittens for 6 weeks and then... We brought them to this wonderful woman in Bedford, who raises abandoned kittens to be fostered out and eventually finds them a wonderful home. Meatball, the mom lives in our neck of the woods and is cared by four families who love her. Cousin Barb