Yamaguchi: Teen puts her heart into helping homeless cats

The Yomiuri Shimbun

YAMAGUCHI — A 14-year-old girl is the head of a shelter for stray cats in Yamaguchi City.

Himemo Teshima has been in charge of caring for the protected cats, along with managing events to search for new cat owners. The cat shelter Nekoniwa is in the inner courtyard of Teshima Ryokan inn, which her family runs in the Ajisu Onsen hot spring resort area near Ube in Yamaguchi City.

The shelter has already found new homes for over 500 cats.

In mid-December last year, Himemo handed over an orange-and-black kitten to a new owner. She had raised the kitten as if it were her own child.

She told the cat, “I hope you’ll be happy.”

She is now a second-year student at junior high school and captain of her school’s softball team. It is her daily routine after softball practice to clean up the Nekoniwa shelter and feed the cats there. Sometimes, her friends visit the shelter and help her out.

Himemo encountered a stray cat for the first time in 2014, when she was in the first grade of elementary school. She found a weakened kitten along the riverside near the inn.

Though her father, Hideki, disliked cats, he fell in love with the kitten for its friendliness. On the condition that Himemo and her siblings would take care of the kitten, Hideki allowed her to keep it.

While she lived happily with the cat, she knew that many cats are killed for being strays.

“I have to save them however I can,” she said to her family.

After discussing it, they decided to take care of cats that were caught as strays and temporarily kept in public and other facilities, and find them new homes.

They did a crowd-funding campaign and received about ¥4 million.

The protection shelter was completed in 2016 as the family modified a cargo container into a glass-covered house for cats so that human guests of the inn can see their feline counterparts.

As other family members are busy managing the inn, Himemo plays a central role in taking care of the cats. She uses the internet to find new owners, putting records of the cats’ growth online and showing her activities to a wide range of people.

Her work has attracted attention from all over the nation, with the inn accommodating guests even from Hokkaido and the Kanto region, who want to see the cats. Her father has praised her.

“She has taught me how important it is to face social problems seriously,” Hideki, now 44, said.

More strays surviving

The success in cat adoption activities has driven down the number of stray cats killed in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

More than 3,500 stray cats were killed annually from 1998 to 2012, according to the prefectural government. Since fiscal 2020 — the year from April 2020 to March 2021 — the number has fallen to 314, or about 10% of what it used to be.

However, cats continue to be abandoned. Last year, Himemo picked up about 20 cats near the inn. These cats appear to have been deliberately abandoned by heartless people.

“I was so sad,” she said.

Himemo heard that members of other organizations conducting similar activities have experienced the same kind of incidents.

“I want as many people as possible to know about all of this through our adoption activities,” Himemo said. “I’ll keep working toward making a better society where everyone reaches out to the lives of little animals in front of them.”

In the future, Himemo hopes to visit other countries to see how different nations treat their cats, she said.