On the island of Aoshima, Japan — better known as "cat island" — wild cats outnumber humans eight to one.
A ferry from Fukuoka, Japan will take you to Aoshima Island in less than 20 minutes. The sparsely populated island has become a booming tourist attraction, but there are no stores here, nor restaurants.
What Aoshima does have are cats. Lots and lots of cats.
"I seldom carried tourists before," ferry captain Nobuyuki Ninomiya remarks. "Now I carry tourists every week, even though the only thing we have to offer is cats."
Known as "cat island" and "cat heaven," Aoshima has eight cats for every human at last count.
Aoshima isn't unique; in fact, Japan has a total of 10 others just like it. These feline-filled islands are a result of fishermen who brought strays to lower rodent populations. With no known predators on the islands, cats quickly became overfed and began reproducing at exponential rates.
Compounding the overfeeding problem, the islands' elderly population often feed the cats and develop a companionship with them. However, no cat lover can blame them for that.
Japan's also certainly not the only place where cat islands abound. Until recently, the U.S. had at least 18, and Australia at one time had 15.
Then again, Japan regards cats a little differently. It's worth noting that the U.S. and Australian figures come from a paper reviewing feral cat eradication on islands. Humans use hunting dogs, traps, and poison to try and cull feral cats. Japan is definitely more cat-friendly than some countries.
The cats are used to humans now, and therefore are more aptly categorized as semi-feral. They will happily play with you and accept your undivided attention. There is a designated feeding area near the community center, and the residents ask that if you feed the cats, to do it here.
Life On Cat Island: Heaven Or Hell?
With so many cats, the island a perfect biosphere to research large group cat behaviors. Indeed, cats arrange themselves in hierarchies, where males compete for territory and their female mates compete for food. With so much competition, it seems like a stressful scenario.
Consequently, cat researchers and activists argue that living conditions on cat heaven are anything but heavenly. With so much interspecies competition, kittens often die before adulthood from starvation, disease, and a type of infanticide previously seen exclusively in lions.
However, others insist that cat life on the island is a virtual picnic. "It's a cat paradise here," says Kazuyuki Ono ... They love nothing more than to just lie about in the street sunning themselves all day."
The only snag is that when winter comes, tourism slows down — ie: food is not being lavished upon them at the rate it is during other seasons.
"In spring and summer, tourists bring food to feed the cats but when it gets cold, the sea is rough and nobody comes. Sometimes boats can't cross in the rough seas," Ono adds.
When this does happen, pleas for food are usually sent out, and the people of Japan quickly send donations.
The Human Residents
The island was once a prosperous fishing village; home to 900 people in the mid-1940s. Today, only a handful of elderly residents who didn't relocate after World War II remain.
While the cat island human population may soon be able to supplement their incomes by catering to the cat-crazed, Aoshima is not exactly a bustling hub for tourism. There are no hotels, restaurants, shops ... not even a vending machine.
Adding to the island's mystique, there is by one account, a "cat witch". Although nothing more can be gleaned from this woman than one person's quote to Reuters; "There is a ton of cats here, then there was this sort of cat witch who came out to feed the cats which was quite fun," said 27-year-old Makiko Yamasaki. "I'd want to come again."
If you're planning a visit bring all your own supplies, and take all your garbage home with you. Be respectful of the elderly residents and kind to the felines who call cat island home.
"If people coming to the island find the cats healing, then I think it's a good thing," 65-year-old fisherman Hidenori Kamimoto told Reuters. "I just hope that it's done in a way that doesn't become a burden on the people who live here."