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-- Popular ‘Fox Village’ In Japan Is Actually Hiding A Dark History That The Owners Never Let On

“If you have a soft spot for animals, this place will break your heart.” That’s how Anna Davis described Zao Fox Village in Sendai, a city to the northeast of Tokyo on Honshu Island. People thought she was crazy: what could be so bad about a village of foxes?
As fans dug into her experience, however, they realized that though this popular spot masquerades as a friendly tourist attraction, there’s something much more sinister going on behind the scenes. Only an inside look could expose a troubling issue that was sweeping the across entire planet.
When Anna Davis was planning her trip to Japan, she knew she wanted to stop at Zao Fox Island. After all, the attraction described itself as a nature preserve just keeping the animals comfortable in a mountain retreat. It sounded like a blast, especially to Anna.
She’d seen the photos: as guests walk through surreal, snowy landscapes, they’re swarmed by cute foxes looking to be pet like the family dog. From pictures alone, this preserve gave Disneyland a run for its money on the “Happiest Place” moniker.
But it was more personal to Anna, too. She volunteered at animal sanctuaries in the United States and hoped this would be similar to those wildlife centers. So she packed her bags and headed to Japan for what she thought would be the trip of a lifetime. She was wrong.
Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary
When she first arrived, something about the preserve felt off. From her point of view, the foxes were being used as mere decorations to draw visitors into the zoo. And when Anna paid to get in, she received pellets that looked similar to dog food.
jokercita / reddit
Then she was told not to touch foxes or hand-feed them, and that they should “stand tall and try to scare them away” if the animals become aggressive. After all this, she was told she could pay extra to pet her own fox.
Japan Travel
By this point, Anna knew she wasn’t in a wildlife rescue. More than 150 foxes were crammed into the area together, and there was an arctic fox tied to a post — and the animal was dangerously overweight! Her time at the preserve only grew more bizarre.
Makiko Nakano
The smells were as terrible as the sights. “It was a hot July day, and the area was really dusty,” Anna said. “It smelled like feces, and the heat just seemed to make it worse. Her visit only got worse from here.
On “hotel street,” a path that winds through Fox Village, wooden crates held sleeping foxes and piles of wire cages held the more aggressive animals. They had very little room to move.
Makiko Nakano
The foxes in captivity ranged from a few who were healthy to many emaciated animals roaming around in a dusty space. Besides the boxes, they had very little in the way of protection from the environment and sun.
Even though visitors were given dry food to give the foxes, wet little piles of goopy, pink food littered the space. Anna watched flies swarm the gunk. It didn’t look appetizing at all for the foxes to feed from.
And as people fed the foxes their kibble, some of animals would follow them around the enclosure, begging for scraps and nipping at their clothes. This was the result of too many animals in one area. This was particularly troublesome for foxes.
Makiko Nakano
Foxes are naturally solitary animals who rarely come in contact with each other, let alone people. Putting them together, causes conflict with these territorial creatures — especially in a space that isn’t well set up to begin with. Experts weighed in on Anna’s insights.
“[Fox Village] keeps foxes in a totally different way from their natural biology,” said Makiko Nakano, a veterinarian who’s visited Fox Village. “[Foxes] do not live in groups. They cooperate only to raise their cubs and otherwise live solitary lives.”
Anna and Makiko aren’t the only ones outraged about this treatment. Many other visitors have taken to trip advisor to talk about the injustice at Fox Village. Hopefully it can serve as a warning to others. 
“We saw foxes chewing on ladders and pieces of aluminum siding. We saw a ladder fall on a fox,” one reviewer said. “The images you see online are only half of the truth,” another tourist said. One expert noted the very basis of the village may be a lie.
Jay Dodge, Flickr
“The moment you start charging people to be entertained by animals, you stop being a sanctuary built around the notion of compassionate conservation …” said Prashant Khetan, CEO of Born Free USA, an animal advocacy nonprofit.
When animals are viewed as entertainment, they are going against their natural behavior. Over time, this can result in a physical strain on them. This isn’t something they can keep up forever.
Wikimedia
“When the time comes when the animal is no longer performance-worthy, then what do you think happens to that animal? He/she can’t be released back into the wild because they won’t survive,” said Prashant.
Bernhard Heesen / YouTube
Foxes, along with owls and penguins, are only some of the animals who are getting the cute and accessible treatment in cafés and other animal-themed restaurants. These animals may look adorable, but they aren’t meant to be kept in this way.
Wikimedia
If you love foxes and want to protect them, the only true way is to get rid of irresponsible and dangerous breeding practices and let them stay wild. When people see them as cute and cuddly, it can send the wrong message.
If you want to see cute animals in a responsible way try Cafe Lua in Machida, Neco Republic, The “Outdoor Cat Cafe” in Ikebukuro, Rabbit Island (Okunoshima), Cat Island (Ainoshima), or many other options!
Wikimedia
Clearly, dog people learn to adapt on Tashirojima, AKA Cat Island. They pretty much have to, or they’d be miserable on the island where cats officially outnumber humans. How Tashirojima earned the name Cat Island goes way back to the mid-18th century.
Japan’s late Edo Period was characterized by economic growth, enjoyment of arts and entertainment, and a stable population, all of which made its way to the island of Tashirojima…just not in the way people expected.
Kazutaka Sawa/Creative Commons
The people of Tashirojima were incredibly hard-working, and so were their cats. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, people on the island raised silkworms for their textiles. The problem? The island’s mouse population preyed on the precious silkworms.
Kazutaka Sawa/Creative Commons
Luckily for the workers, there was a clear solution. For every mouse is a hungry cat right on its tail, and before long, the island’s cat population grew to accommodate that of the mice. But there was a hitch in the workers’ plan.
When you have stray cats on an island, there’s really only a handful of things they can do: hunt, sleep, and mate. Before Tashirojima knew it, the island was overrun with cats. It helped that the island was sustained by the fishing industry.
In that way, Tashirojima became something of a cats’ paradise: It was lousy with fish and mice, it was covered with interesting peaks and trails for the cats to explore, and as the generations passed, the island mainly became home to cat enthusiasts.
And “cat enthusiast” may not be a strong enough word. Every store, hotel, and home on Cat Island has a litany of cat toys, and tourism guides recommend that visitors bring their own cat food, since it’s always sold out on the island.
Matcha
Even the most grizzled residents have soft spots for the cats: There’s a mythology among fishermen that the cats bring good luck. When a fisherman once accidentally killed a cat, he felt so guilty that he built something unusual in the middle of the island…
He built a shrine for the animal, which has become a tourist attraction and a favorite haunt among the island’s many felines, mainly because people leave cat toys around the shrine. Weirdly enough, that’s not the only cat shrine in the area.
Kakei.R/Creative Commons
There are at least nine more scattered across the Miyagi Prefecture. As more tourists head to Tashirojima to see Cat Island for themselves, a couple of cat-themed attractions have popped up.
Matcha
You can even find little inns designed to resemble the island’s favorite four legged animals. If you want to bring your dog to the island, you’re out of luck: It’s strictly forbidden in order to protect the cats from harm.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the human population of Tashirojima has grown fond of the cats, and though it’s considered “inappropriate” to keep the cats as pets, some of the felines have endeared themselves to the humans more than others. 
Matcha
One such cat, named Droopy-Eared Jack, even hit the big time. A movie was made about him that was turned into a series, and tourists head over to the island specifically to find Jack. “Droopy-Eared Jack” may not sound like a particularly powerful cat…
Matcha
But don’t let the endearing name fool you. Whether big or small, every cat on Cat Island is treated with respect. After all, good fortune comes to fishermen who feed the strays…but in 2011, they learned that this isn’t always the case.
On March 11th of that year, the cats suddenly started wailing. That alone wan’t unusual, but what was unusual was just how many cats were howling out of nowhere. It seemed that wherever you went, there was a cat, wailing at whoever would listen.
Matcha
But that was the problem — no one listened. It was weird that a majority of the cats were making a ruckus when usually they didn’t, but no one quite knew what to make of it. Weirdest of all was the way the cats looked.
YouTube
Every cat owner knows what it looks like when a cat feels threatened: Their tails puff up, their ears flatten out, their eyes become the size of dinner plates. Unfortunately, by the time anyone realized what this all meant, it was too late.
Fiona Loh
Hours after the howling began, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Tōhoku, sending a merciless tsunami in its wake…which headed right towards Tashirojima. The island and its four legged friends scrambled for cover, hoping the cats’ good luck would save them.
Kazutaka Sawa/Creative Commons
In a way, it did: Most of Tashirojima was still standing after the tsunami passed. Though buildings on the shore were damaged, a majority of houses were intact. One of the first things people did was roam the streets in search of any feline survivors.
It was impossible to protect all of the cats, so the people of Tashirojima were afraid of what they would find. Luckily, they had no reason to fear: Slowly but surely, most of the cats reappeared in town, wet and grouchy, but alive.
As Cat Island grows into a playground for cats and tourists alike, no one can forget the time the furry felines almost sacrificed their nine lives to warn Tashirojima of impending doom. Weirdly enough, it’s only one of Japan’s many animal-conquered islands.
Matcha
At first glance, Ōkunoshima looks just like any of the other islands that make up Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. Accessible only by ferry, this unassuming strip of rock and tree has become one of the country’s most popular attractions — and not because of its natural beauty.
THE GATE | Japan Travel Magazine
Instead, tourists flock from all over the world for a chance to experience the island’s huge feral rabbit population. In fact, Ōkunoshima is now most often referred to by its nickname Usagi Shima, literally “Rabbit Island.”
Japan Web Magazine
More than 1,000 of these furry little creatures call Ōkunoshima home, and with no natural predators, their numbers only continue to grow each year. Many locals have come to associate the island with fertility, though tourists seem to hold a far different perspective.
GetHiroshima.com / Flickr
Ōkunoshima has become the premier destination for those looking to get up close and personal with these cuddly creatures. Years of contact have rendered the rabbits docile and unafraid of humans, with many even coming right up to visitors for a quick sniff.
@petenikolic / Instagram
Unsurprisingly, this unique behavior has produced plenty of viral content that’s only served to attract more tourists to its shores. But while an island filled with cute, friendly rabbits may seem innocent as can be, the history of Ōkunoshima is anything but.
Before it was a world-famous tourist destination, Ōkunoshima served as a cultivation site for mainland Japan for centuries. It wasn’t until 1904, during the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, that the island began to take the shape of something more than just farmland.
General Photographic Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Ten forts were constructed to protect the island, though following the war’s swift end in 1905, the structures fell out of use. Still, Ōkunoshima had proven capable of supporting military installments — and keeping secrets as well.
Takuma Kimura
With the island’s population at less than 20, the Japanese government knew they could do as they pleased on the island without fear of prying eyes. That’s why in 1925, the Imperial Japanese Army arrived on Ōkunoshima with sinister intentions.
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
After receiving intel that the powers of Europe and the United States were doing the same, the army initiated a secret program to begin developing chemical weapons for Japan — not exactly rabbit-friendly behavior.
The construction of the weapons factory on the island was highly classified, and most of those that were employed here were never told what they were making. The Japanese government even went as far as completely erasing Ōkunoshima from their maps.
Setouchi Reflection Trip
For more than a decade, the facility at Ōkunoshima produced over six kilotons of mustard gas and tear gas for use by the Imperial Japanese Army. These chemicals were primarily used during the Second Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945, resulting in more than 80,000 deaths.
Bettmann / Getty Images
Following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, all documents pertaining to the project were destroyed, and American troops ultimately disposed of the remaining chemicals through dumping, burning, and burying. Yet what does any of this have to do with an island full of rabbits?
Murikov / Reddit
Well, during the height of chemical production, rabbits were shipped to Ōkunoshima for use as test subjects. After the factory shut down, the workers wound up releasing the animals into the wild — or, at least, that’s what many first believed.
As it turns out, the remaining rabbits were actually killed by American troops when they arrived on Ōkunoshima. So, how did this enormous colony of fluffballs really get here?
Kim Bui / Flickr
Believe it or not, the island’s rabbits are actually descendants of a group of eight that were released on the island back in the ’70s during early efforts to transform Ōkunoshima into a park. Since then, these rabbits have only continued to multiply and thrive — though they may not for much longer.
The increasing popularity of Ōkunoshima has resulted in a population boom as tourists continue feeding the rabbits uninhibited. This wouldn’t be a problem if visits to the island were constant, though, unfortunately, tourism doesn’t work that way.
During the offseason, human-supplied feed becomes a rarity, leaving the 1,000-strong population to turn to the island itself for food. As the number of rabbits continues growing unchecked, it’s only a matter of time before Ōkunoshima’s vegetation is completely wiped out.
And even when tourists are around, they’re not exactly feeding these rabbits the healthiest diets. Many visitors will sneak nutrition-less and even harmful foods to these animals, resulting in the average rabbit lifespan falling to just two years.
“Of the 728 rabbits that we counted on the island, 28 percent had visible injuries or illnesses,” reported Animals and Society Institute program director Margo DeMello, who saw this percentage jump to 50 in the areas of the island closest to humans.
Yukihiro Fukuda / Minden Pictures
Conservationists are now working to limit the impact of tourists on the Ōkunoshima, a mission they’ve already had experience carrying out on another uninhabited island off the coast of Brazil. Unfortunately, the lush treetops here are concealing something far deadlier than a few hundred bunnies.

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