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.|
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|
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.