Sunday, April 24, 2011

One Day in Fukushima

[Author's note, February 2016: It's been nearly five years since I wrote the below. The most dramatic consequence of the events described here is that my wife and I both went vegan about a year later. This is the back story to all else on this blog.]

On April 21, 2011 I joined Japan-based animal welfare group JEARS on their last rescue mission inside the 20km evacuation zone around the Fukushima 2 nuclear power plant, before the government locked down the area. One of the effects of declaring this evacuation zone and relocating the affected human population to emergency shelters has been mass-scale abandonment of animals. Tens of thousands of farm animals, pets and horses are inside the evacuation zone. Many have been set free by their owners and are roaming the area but others that had been leashed or locked up have perished from dehydration or starvation. Images on the Internet showing dogs that had died in their chains and reports of cats locked up in houses cannibalizing each other had been part of my motivation to come and help. If I could break only one starving dog out of its chains, the trip would be worth it.

Having loaded my car with six cages I have purchased at a DIY store, I drive into the area, observing signs of earthquake damage as well as the beauty of the landscape along the way. The zone consists of lush, rolling hills, gorges with white water rivers, a shoreline that is good for surfing and a few villages. At the edge of the zone, police stop me and take down my details. They do not yet have the legal power or orders to prevent me from entering. They wish me the best of luck when I have explained what I am up to.

These gentlemen from Kanagawa want to know just exactly what I think I am doing here.

Past their road block, traffic is still surprisingly busy. I arrive at the road junction where I was asked to meet Susan Roberts, one of the co-founders of JEARS, with nobody in sight. Getting out of my car, right away I spot a dog that is running around the junction, forcing other cars to slow down. Checking out the area I realize that nobody is home. There are still cars parked in front of some of the houses but nobody is in, and the doors are locked. Following the barking sounds from another dog, I encounter a middle-aged gentleman milling about in a yard. He tells me that this is his second house, a kind of get-away (from the wife?), and he has come back to pick up a few things before it is too late. The barking dog is his. Asked whether he knows who the other dog belongs to, he tells me to feel free to pick it up - clearly the owners have left it to its own devices.  He then launches into a tirade about the idiocy of the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture who are responsible for bringing misery not only to tens of thousands of animals but also, in many cases, to the owners who have not abandoned them happily. Not too sure if he singles out the correct ministry but I can’t argue with the gist of what he is saying.

When I see that the stray dog is heading off down the road, I call it. It stops immediately and without hesitation comes back to where I am. It is friendly and lets me pet it. It is very thin but generally in good health. Its friendly nature takes on an aggressive edge when I bring out the plastic-wrapped lunchbox I have bought from a 7/11 convenience store. The dog makes a spirited attempt at snatching it from me and tearing up the plastic with its teeth before I manage to establish who really is the owner of that box. I feed the hungry guy some pieces of teriyaki chicken and in the process almost feed my fingers along with the chicken.

At the junction, my first pick-up.

At this moment, Susan and her crew arrive in their Toyota Hi-Ace van, a vehicle large enough to hold seven or eight average cages. Susan is an English teacher living in Kansai and running an animal shelter there. She was one of the first animal welfare activists to take action in Fukushima. Rumour has it that she has already rescued one-hundred animals since the beginning of the crisis. The other members of the team are Miho, a girl from Tokyo acting as driver; Stuart, a retired vet from the UK; and Dennis, an animal rescue veteran from California who has come with a group called Kinship Circle to support JEARS. Shaking hands, we have a laugh at the fact that I have already picked up one animal before I am even officially initiated into the business of rescuing animals. The dog clearly likes being picked up.  As soon as I open my car's door, it hops in, no invitation extended. It has also tried to hop into another car that had stopped by the road while I was talking to the man who had an axe to grind with those idiot bureaucrats.

And so we head off deeper into the zone, through a tunnel behind which radiation levels measured in earlier days had been drastically higher than in front of it. I slip on my N95 mask now, wondering what the plan is.

You don't need a plan in there. The animals are everywhere. Anyone with a van and a few cages can pick up a half dozen dogs in just a few hours. The time-consuming part is not finding the animals but, in some cases, to catch them. Our most difficult catch of the day is a mixed breed that has been set free but has stayed in front of its owners' house, by its kennel where food has been left. The dog is too distrustful, smart and alert to let itself be caught easily. After almost half an hour of trying to somehow outwit the animal without using force, we decide to leave Stuart, the English vet, alone with the dog and return half an hour later. The idea is that Stuart is the least suspect of our group as he has not participated in our encirclement tactics and is therefore the one with the best chance of building trust with the suspicious fellow. This works, and when we return half an hour later, the dog is in the cage, along with a soccer ball.

In the half hour we have been gone, we pick up three more dogs, including a young dog that first escapes upon our approach but turns around when I call it, and quickly becomes buddies with me. Accordingly, I christen him “Buddy”.

In between catching animals, we see streets broken by the earthquake, power lines that have collapsed and are dangerously hanging down onto the asphalt, and convenience stores that have been boarded up (announcing by handwritten note that they are “Out of operation”.) We see pet food dumped on the street in many places by thoughtful passers-by or animal welfare organizations. We see cows that have been turned loose and are ripping up people’s gardens. We see residents taking their belongings out of their houses, not knowing whether they will ever be allowed back. And although there are indeed people inside the zone, it is largely deserted and has an eerie quiet about it.

This Lawson is "Out of Operation"
A cow that has nothing to complain about.
A damaged bridge. Imagine the force that did this.
When we leave the zone around six o’ clock, we have picked up nine abandoned dogs in varying condition, one cat in very bad shape, and a tenth dog that its owner has phoned JEARS about, giving them an address where the dog could be found. About half the dogs are in excellent shape, the others show various signs of trauma, malnourishment and illness. Some of these things may have nothing to do with the disaster but may stem from lack of care by the owners prior to the troubles.

The Banetsu expressway takes us across the Japanese mainland to the other side of this narrow island, into Niigata City. Isabella Aoki-Galloan, the owner of the shelter there, comes to the parking lot by our hotel to pick up the three dogs in my car (including Buddy). The other animals will have to spend the night and the next morning in the parking lot as shelter is still being constructed to take them in.

Keeping eight animals in a city car park is a major operation in its own right. We spend until 2 o’ clock in the morning feeding, watering and walking the animals, picking up poo, soothing and petting them and reallocating them to more suitably sized cages if we have misallocated them in the chaos of the retrieval operation. I also have to help wrestle down a formidable Akita dog that will not accept its captivity without a fight. When I finally take a shower on my room, I realize that I smell like a pack of stray dogs.

I am up again at seven o’ clock in the morning and spend another four hours with the group and additional members of the Kinship organization lending a hand, taking care of the animals. By now, some of the more stressed and traumatized animals seem to relax a little, bark less and relate more to their captors.

This dog has not been brushed or washed in years,

Car park pow-wow
Finally word comes from the shelter that we can move out. The shelter is thirty kilometers outside the city, located on the foot of Mt Kakuda and surrounded by woodlands and fruit tree plantations. It is an ideal location to be running an animal shelter.

What I see there takes me by surprise. This place is large and well organized! It is now housing three-hundred animals, two-thirds of which are rescued (the other third are guests of the pet hotel business the owner runs and from which the shelter activities were born.) Three main buildings that used to be barns and other farming facilities have been converted into compartmentalized animal holding structures. More space has been attached to these buildings in the same way winter gardens are attached to houses. Containers normally used to give construction workers a place to have lunch have been converted into holding facilities as well. Quarantine holding has been established in front of the gates (this is where our animals went). A volunteer vet is there to examine arrivals, run quarantine, hygiene and other health routines, and deal with medical problems. Seven full-time staff and a fluctuating number of volunteers who come from many places around the country clean cells, feed the animals, walk the dogs, talk to the cats and repair fences and doors. The noise of three-hundred animals barking, miaowing, complaining or laughing (I guess, even a dog can laugh) is overwhelming. Coming out of the Fukushima twilight zone into this haven of compassion and professionalism, I feel deeply moved.

Isabella, the owner here, takes a minute to chat with me. She looks tired and pale, with deep rings under her eyes. Clearly, at this moment, sleep is a luxury. Running this place is like running a war hospital. She assigns a couple of dogs to me to walk outside the shelter which I gladly do.

Pet hotel rooms

Inside one of the main buildings

The quarantine building 

Then I run into Buddy who has just been shampooed (after the vet had examined him for radiological contamination - of which there was very little) and led out to dry by the main gate. When he sees me, he performs a dance of joy that breaks my heart. Living in a Tokyo apartment with both my wife and I in full-time jobs, I see no way to adopt the little fellow and have to leave him behind in the pandemonium of the sanctuary.

Driving back toward Tokyo, I reflect on two of my life’s most disturbing and yet inspiring days. I feel humbled and ashamed, comparing myself to the people who as early as a month ago have started this animal rescue operation. They are English teachers with little financial means and yet they have done more good than a hundred-thousand other people – myself included. I am deeply disturbed by the prospect of thousands of animals dying or possibly being actively exterminated by a bureaucracy that has yet to publicly articulate its rationale for the lockdown of the Fukushima exclusion zone. I have not busted any starving dog out of its chains because we had to act fast and pick up as many of the animals we could see running around in the open, rather than spending hours to look for those animals that are chained and therefore harder to notice. They are still out there, needing a compassionate hand to save them. They will probably never feel the touch of that hand.


A continuation of sorts to this account is here.


  1. Excellent work! Thank you for posting this to Foreign Volunteers Japan in FB, as well. Definitely eye-opening.

    All the more saddening now that laws have been passed to keep people out of the Exclusion Zone

  2. Thanks for sharing!!
    I am also helping JEARS and we just scored a base in Sendai!!

    This is goo dnews!!

    Please share this note!

    See you on the road!!

  3. Anonymous26/4/11 22:18

    Well written! I spent 2 weeks in Japan with Kinship Circle earlier this month and I believe you captured the experience perfectly. Congratulations on volunteering, and hopefully your words will inspire others. Cheers, Adrienne

  4. Anonymous26/4/11 23:21


  5. Anonymous27/4/11 01:38

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is great to hear that so many dogs have been saved. I know JEARS do a great job and it is very kind of you to offer your help, God bless you. I hope more people will follow your example. I also hope the japanese gov. will let owners go back to take their petsbefore it is too late!!

    Margarita From Greece

  6. Thank you for volunteering. You did a great job. I hope others in Japan can volunteer as you did. You have a good heart.

  7. Thank you for posting your moving experience. This sounds very much like what we saw and heard about in the United States after hurricane Katrina a few years ago, when so many animals were abandoned there. I'm following volunteers with JEARS and Kinship Circle on FaceBook; how wonderful that you were able to help too; I hope more people in Japan will also help find and rescue and take care of these poor animals.

  8. Evelyn, thanks for the comments. There are actually quite a few organizations in Japan that are doing similar things to JEARS. Naturally most of them are local, Japanese, so you don't hear much about them internationally. All these organizations aren't very well coordinated so that is one problem. The other problem is the sheer scale of the disaster that would leave even organizations in countries where animal welfare groups are better organized than in Japan reeling. The government so far has not done much to help and in fact is the major cause of the Fukushima issue. If they had not imposed the complete lock-down or if they had set up a permit system for volunteers to go in, that would have been appreciated. Maybe they will modify the lock-down but we are dealing with government here which, as we all know, is not exactly a rapidly acting organism.

  9. BLESS you for what you are doing!! I will spread the word.

  10. seconded Karina. Thank you so much.

  11. You're doing an amazing job. Thank you.

  12. The Stormtrooper pics are great!
    So are the rest!
    Thank you for saving animals!!

  13. Anonymous1/5/11 04:58

    Big respect from Mexico. Keep up the good work!

  14. I love you guys! Your amazing and now if the government would only let you guys go in and rescue those other animals that need help. Thank you all so much! What happened with the dog that had not been washed and brushed in years? Is he okay?

  15. Anonymous1/5/11 05:58

    Posted the petition too from France, Tarbes. I hope all the best for Japan.

  16. Anonymous1/5/11 07:01

    Thank you, thank you.

  17. Please keep up the good work that you do...

  18. GREAT stuff, Axel. You really summarized the experience well in both words and pictures.

  19. Anonymous1/5/11 08:19

    Truly disturbing but inspiring story. Thank you animal rescuers. God bless you all.

    Yani from Philippines

  20. p.s. Sharing (& re-posting) via FB and our blog. Thanks again. After 12 days down there helping the same peeps, I wish I could find similar words or had taken the pictures to share. Fortunately, you have summarized one of those days very well here.

  21. Great!! Thank you animal rescuers
    Now I'm coming from LA to Tokyo
    I will go to Minamisoma Next week
    I would like to rescuer animals

  22. Thank you so much for the work you have done. I have so much admiration for those of you that have gone and helped. If I had not had a scheduled minor surgery then I would have flown out to help from the US. So far I have avoided seeing any of the deceased animal photos on the net as my heart is already broken with the abandoned animals. I want to say thank you and I will be donating again for Jears.

  23. Anonymous1/5/11 09:53

    Thank you for documenting this horrific situation. Thank you for caring enough to publish. The animals need help and time is running out. I hope you rescued the one that hadn't been brushed in years. That pet deserved so much more, as they all do. You told their story. Please continue to help the animals' plight. Take this documentary to the news, magazines, TV, every where.

  24. God bless each and every one of you for doing this. All I can do is donate to JEARS. I wish I could do more.

  25. Excellent post. Thank you for sharing your experience in such detailed manner. I had not realized that it was so easy to find dogs just running around all over the place--that makes me so sad. :-( I understand why some people would rather stay and get radiation than leave their pet behind. I also understand the government's need to keep people away from the nuclear complex, but I just wish people would have been allowed to take pets with them to shelters when they evacuated in the first place. You guys are doing a very kind thing out there... thanks and love from the USA.

  26. Great job, we just always read about the stories of the animals, but little is known about the work of the volunteers of Jears and the other organizations. I hope that they are getting all financial and volunteering support they need, even further when the public is not that interested in this disaster any longer ... Greetings from Vermont

  27. For those who are asking about the FUR MONSTER. This was indeed among the rescued dogs. It was depressed when we found it but seemed to respond well the next day when the picture was taken at the parking lot. Being walked, fed and talked to seemed to do wonders. Now it is at the Niigata shelter. I imagine - although I am not sure - that it must have had its fur cut and brushed simply as part of the routine to move it out of quarantine and decontaminating it.

  28. I was immediately concerned for the welfare of animals in Japan after the tsunami and earthquake. I am glad someone has stepped up to help animals. Many animals had no chance of escaping the devastating destruction from the disaster. They need someone to help them restore their health.

  29. Thank you for sharing your very touching and at the same time, amazing experience.
    Even after reading it more than 3 times, it still brings tears to my eyes.
    I'm sure you'll always be in "Buddy's" heart as much as he is in yours.

    As it is, it's so heartbreaking hearing about these abandoned animals but it's stories like yours that bring hope and uplifts ones' spirits.

    Thank you for a great job done and being there for the many stranded and abandonned animals.

  30. I am so glad that you were able to share this. I have just posted a link and video to Jears. The US has already learned how terrible it is for owners and pets to be separated. We understand that agencies are doing the best with an impossible situation. But since there are wonderful people willing to care for this poor animals, the government should just let them. Emotionally it will help heal.

  31. Thanks for sharing. May God protect you in your work!

  32. Thank you for sharing your amazing and very touching experience.
    Even after reading it more than 3 times, it still brings tears to my eyes.
    I'm sure you'll always be in "Buddy's" heart as much as he is in yours.

    As it is, it's so heartbreaking hearing about these stranded animals but it's stories like yours that bring hope and uplifts ones' spirits.

    Thank you for a great job done and being there for the many stranded and abandonned animals.

  33. Anonymous8/5/11 07:38

    thru JCN FB found your blog

    feeling same as Priscilla

    thank you so much for a detail share ... very emotional

    Buddy will never forget you

    i know the hurt ... we barely got buy with having one cat in our small apt ... but wow! what a difference being made ! amazing

    copying/pasting wherever i can so others know

  34. What a good thing you have done. Buddy is dashing puppy