CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Nobody at the Japanese pound knew the name of the little Maltese mix — or the American owner who lost or abandoned her.
She jumped against her wire cage Friday, yipping as if trying to tell them, while other ownerless dogs howled from nearby cages at the brink of the gas chamber at the Okinawa Prefectural Animal Protection and Control Center.
What should have been the Maltese’s salvation was just under her skin. Like all dogs owned by U.S. military personnel, she had an implanted microchip that held a permanent link to her master’s identity. But the chip’s serial number, an identification system used by military vets, was little help to the Japanese staff at the animal control center.
Facility officials said servicemember-owned pets like the Maltese are captured regularly. Despite U.S. efforts to microchip all pets on Okinawa and impose fines for abandonment, many of the dogs and cats are euthanized without ever being acknowledged by the military or tracked to their owners due to privacy laws, they say.
Tsunehiro Hirayasu, director of the animal control center, said the pets often end up being put to sleep due to a lack of communication with Karing Kennels, the military’s centralized veterinarian and kennel service on Kadena Air Base that is charged with tracking and caring for servicemember animals.
“It is not unusual that we don’t hear from them for as long as two weeks” after the control center contacts Karing Kennels about a captured pet with a military-implanted chip, Hirayasu said. “We can assume that there is shortage in manpower, but the slow or limited answer makes us wonder how serious they are about helping the pet return to its owner or making the owner accountable for his or her pet.”
The center euthanizes cats after four working days and dogs after five. According to the center, 24 dogs with military microchips were captured between April and October, and 10 were destroyed after the center could not locate U.S. owners.
Abandonment has been a long-term problem for the military on Okinawa, as well as the prefecture in general, where thousands of animals are put down every year. It led the military to require microchips and registration for all servicemember pets, and irresponsible owners are supposed to be tracked down.
The Air Force maintains it keeps a close relationship with off-base animal control despite the criticism Friday and enforces a network of regulations to keep pets united with military owners and discourage abandonment while serving on Okinawa.
“Those pets, that is our family, and we have to take care of our family,” said Kadena spokesman Maj. Chris Anderson.
When a military pet is found, Karing Kennels puts a three-day hold on the animal while it searches for an owner via a physical description and microchip information, which is usually stored in the facility’s database or the Army Veterinary Treatment Facility database, according to Anderson.
Furthermore, owners who abandoned pets are forced to pay adoption fees and can have their wages garnished.
Anderson said Karing Kennels staff were not available Friday to comment on how often the facility contacts Okinawa animal control.
The pets captured by the Japanese and sent to the Okinawa prefectural control center are often saved from euthanization through the help of military volunteer groups.
Sandy Sallaz, who volunteers for Doggies Inc., said her group posts photos of the newly captured dogs and cats on its website, Facebook and the local message board Okinawa Yard Sales to find owners.
But its hands are tied on directly contacting the owners of record for microchipped dogs because Karing Kennels will not release the registration information, citing privacy rules, Sallaz said.
“I can’t take [the serial number] to Kadena and say I need to find this person,” she said.
The lack of communication and the refusal to release owner information has frustrated the group, and makes some wonder whether military pet owners are being held responsible — and being punished when abandonment occurs and animals are destroyed at the Japanese center.
“You should have to pay,” Sallaz said. “You shouldn’t get away scot-free.”