Mass die-off on Japanese ‘cat island’ tied to tainted fish mystery

The cat population on Umashima Island in Japan has dwindled dramatically since 2014. Pexels

It’s always International Cat Day on the tiny Japanese island of Umashima, where felines have historically outnumbered people.

However, activists are afraid there may come a day when that’s no longer the case, amid a mysterious die-off that has reduced the cat population from 90 to approximately 30 over the last few years.

“It’s not a normal decrease, and there’s no doubt that an outside human element, such as animal cruelty, is causing it,” animal welfare activist Kunihisa Sagami told Japan’s Mainichi newspaper.

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Sagami is the director of Doubutukikin, an animal welfare foundation dedicated to caring for and neutering the cat population on Umashima and Japan’s other cat-populated islands. He’s been helping to manage Umashima’s robust cat population for years, and he’s watched with growing concern as their numbers have dwindled.

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Locals have reported seeing cats foaming at the mouth or collapsing in recent years, Mainichi reports. The problem was thrust into the spotlight in 2017 when locals found five dead cats within 30 metres of each other at the Umashima harbour.

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Animal welfare activists say the deaths appear to be linked to cut-up fish laced with a mysterious blue substance which has yet to be identified. The fish were found on farmlands in October 2018 and May 2019, Mainichi reported.

A cut of fish laced with a blue substance is shown on the Japanese island of Umashima. Fumito Tsushima/Mainichi

Several of the island’s 30 human residents say a local farmer is to blame for the tainted fish.

The accused farmer told Japan’s RKB News that he’s been leaving tainted fish out to drive crows away from his potato crops, and that he is not deliberately targeting the island’s feline population.

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“It was never my intention to harm any cats,” he said. The news outlet did not share the farmer’s name.

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Animal rights activist Sachie Yamazaki told The Guardian that the farmer’s activities have been reported to police.

“There aren’t that many crows on Umashima,” Yamazaki said. “The food found in fields was clearly intended for cats.”

Umashima means “horse island” in Japanese, but it’s been the isle of cats for decades. The island is largely deserted, with only 14 households, according to Mainichi. It’s one of a dozen “cat islands” in Japan, which have become popular among tourists in recent years.

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Sagami and his organization were enlisted to neuter most of the cats on Umashima in 2014, in order to keep them at a sustainable number.

Masami Takeshita, who runs the pro-cat Taisetsuna Nekotachi Project, says her group’s official population count on Umashima has plunged over the last five years.

Takeshita says she hopes police get involved to protect the remaining 30 cats on the island. She told Mainichi she will consider evacuating all the felines on Umashima if the problem is not addressed soon.

“I want to protect these little lives that are cherished by the community in any way I can,” she said.

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