Feral pets forming second tragedy in Fukushima Evacuation Zone

08/23/2011
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Pets reverting to their wild state in the Evacuation Zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are emerging as a secondary tragedy of the March 11 disasters in the Tohoku region in northern Japan, according to Elizabeth Oliver, founder of ARK, a non-profit organization that has been rescuing abused animals in Japan for about 20 years.

Possibly hundreds of dogs and cats were left to their own devices when a 20-kilometer area around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was evacuated after it went into meltdown. Entry into the Evacuation Zone is prohibited to anyone without a special permit. Some official or semi-official groups have gone in and rescued some animals; others creep in illegally under cover of darkness to save others, noted Oliver.

“Many of these pets that survived in this area are on the point of returning to wild states, in other words becoming feral,” Oliver said. “And now a further tragedy is emerging: the proliferation of puppies and kittens, progeny of the unneutered former pets. These offspring, totally untouched by humans, will evade capture and, in time, produce more feral animals.”

Hiroshi Hirani, a veterinarian with the Health, Welfare, Food and Safety division of the Fukushima prefectural government, said they are concerned and very aware of the problem.

“The problem is that once we have these cats and dogs, it is difficult to find their owners,” he said. “We are sending them to rescue centers. But do they have the capacity to care for many more and then find them permanent or foster homes?”

Hirani added that they are in the process of trying to find a strategy to handle this problem. He noted that half the cats were already feral outside the cities before the March 11 disaster.

On of the dogs left behind in the 20-30km Evacuation Zone Photo Credit: Sean Bonner

Oliver said that people evacuated, thinking it was only for a few days, but now all hope of returning is apparently gone. Evacuees left everything behind: their valuables, documents and pets. Some set pets free, putting their names on dogs’ collars, but other animals were left tied up or in cages. These died a lingering and painful death from starvation or dehydration. On farms, horses, cattle, pigs and chicken suffered the same fate.

“The Fukushima prefecture had 5,800 registered dogs on its books before the disasters, but as most people don’t register, this number could actually be triple,” she said. “Cats and other pets are not registered at all. Rescued pets indicate that the level of pet-keeping in Tohoku appeared to be low. Most saved dogs have tested positive for heartworm (filaria), none are microchipped or neutered, and the majority have coats that have never seen a brush in their lives.”

Additionally, rescuers who do get into the Evacuation Zone tend to take the friendly, easy-to-catch animals first and, as time has passed with no human contact, the remaining animals have become even warier. Those that have survived are on the point of returning to a wild state, noted Oliver.

It is likely that cats, rather than dogs, can revert easier to a feral state. Unless over-protected as pets, cats can depend on their predatory nature to hunt, probably rats and mice, since the latter will have multiplied enormously, living richly off the corpses of other animals.

“Dogs have already started to form packs, which will attack and possibly eat other dogs, but they are still too far removed from their ancestor the wolf and unable to hunt successfully,” Oliver said. “Over the years, dogs have become dependent on owners to provide food. Even in other areas of Japan where feral dogs exist, they tend to scavenge or wait for handouts rather than hunt.”

Bowl of food left in the 20-30km Evacuation Zone Photo Credit: Sean Bonner

Sean Bonner, cofounder of Safecast and running its global operations, went into the 20-30 voluntary Evaluation Zone area on Aug. 14 and saw several dogs with collars, and all of them looked skinny, although several bowls of food were left around the area for them. Safecast, an international volunteer organization, works with Tokyo HackerSpace to help people affected by Japan’s disasters.

“All the animals appeared to be nervous and cautious; some came closer than others; all left pretty quickly,” he said.

He noted that most were looking for something or someone. There was a sign from May 1 with photos of dogs that had been found and rescued, while others were roaming around hoping that their owners would claim them.

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4 Responses to Feral pets forming second tragedy in Fukushima Evacuation Zone

  1. Sara on 08/23/2011 at 10:34 pm

    An after-effect you really wouldn’t think of, but obviously very real. So sad…

  2. Chellie on 08/24/2011 at 8:56 am

    What in the hell is wrong with people? If YOU have to evacuate because it’s not safe, it’s obviously not safe for your animals, either. If you need to go, so do they. And to those wonderful people who didn’t even give their animals a chance, but left them in cages to die of starvation or thirst, you are cold, unfeeling excuses for human beings.

  3. coco on 08/25/2011 at 2:21 am

    To be fair to the owners of abondoned pets, it was local governments’ policy that the evacuees were not allowed to bring their pets to evacuation shelters. There were some people who were lucky enough to bring their cars to the evacuation places and lived inside the car with their pets for a while. But not all of evacuees were so lucky. Saw some documentaries of owners blaming themselves that they could not save their pets, but I don’t think they had much choices back then and even till now.

  4. Casper on 08/25/2011 at 2:53 am

    First of all, Chellie – you probably do not live in Japan and understand the Japanese people and their way of thinking. I can see where you are coming from and I totally agree with you regarding taking your pet with you. As a pet owner myself, I would NEVER leave my pet behind no matter what the situation. But, that is my “Gaijin” (foreigner/non-Japanese) way of thinking.

    When the residents in the evacuated area were told to leave by the Japanese Government, they listened and did so. They probably thought that it would only be for a few days. It probably never dawned on them that they would not be able to return to their homes for such a long period of time.

    The ones that left their pets in cages probably did so to “protect” them from any other animal, person, etc. that it may come in contact with or to protect it from possible aftershocks (thinking that the cage would protect them). To those that “crate” train their pets – their “crate” is the safest, and most secure place the pet would want to be. Plus, if the Japanese Government decided to take the animals out of Fukushima – it would be easy to transport them since they were already in cages.

    Most knew that if they took their pets with them to the evacuation sites that it may be a burden to others. Especially when water, food, and other daily necessities were in short supply and were really needed up north in the “hard hit” areas devasted by the tsunamis. And, some people in the evacuation sites might be allergic to cats and/or dogs. So, they did not take their pets with them to the evacuation sites – they did not want to be a burden to others. Their way is to live in “harmony” with others around them.

    But, I do think that the Japanese Government should have had a better way in dealing with the animals in the affected areas. Although, no one ever expected having to deal with three disasters all at once – earthquakes (and large aftershocks), tsunamis, and radiation leaks from the Fukushima nuclear reactors.

    For instance, if they had the list of dogs registered with the city of Fukushima – they should have either called, given them a notice, or gone to each of the registered owners homes and put them together with their pet(s) in designated evacuation sites. Where their pets could be near them in a separate area/room in the evacuation site. Where each pet owner could care for their own pets – feed them, walk them, etc.

    Another thought, for those that did not find their pet(s) at any of the shelters – they should be able to go back in groups by neighborhoods via bus and look for their pets (by walking in their neighborhood and calling out their names). Usually, pets will stay near their homes (hoping that their owners will return!).

    Unfortunately, this is still a sad situation. All we can do is hope that the Japanese Government will have a better plan for future evacuations WHICH INCLUDE EVACUATING ALL ANIMALS! Hopefully, they have learned from their error in judgement in this case regarding the animals.

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