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In Fukushima, abandoned pets are multiplying

With authorities' hands tied, NPO takes up challenge of spaying, neutering cats and dogs

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

It isn’t only humans that are suffering in the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Scores of feral animals are eking out a precarious existence in the surrounding areas, including cats and dogs that were once somebody’s pets.

Left behind in the chaotic exodus, many pets are still unable to join their owners in temporary housing, while others have simply been abandoned. The luckiest animals get occasional visits if and when their owners can find the time and the means to visit their former homes, but most rely on the goodwill of volunteers or have to fend for themselves. Those that are hardy enough to survive the harsh Tohoku winters do what comes naturally and breed, resulting in a sharp rise in feral cats and dogs in the region.

More often than not, the media chooses to focus on feel-good stories about the efforts of volunteer groups to reunite pets with their owners, or to secure loving new homes. However, Hiro Yamasaki of the Animal Rescue System Fund (ARSF) wants the public to realize that there are other sides of the story to consider, too.

Since setting up the Fukushima Spay Clinic in 2012 in the city of Shirakawa, about 100 km southwest of the nuclear plant, Yamasaki and his team of volunteers have spayed and neutered 1,448 animals economically and safely, based on proven methods introduced from the United States.

“Sterilization is the most practical and humane way to curb the growing population of feral animals, and research backs this up,” he says. “Unfortunately, our clinic is the only one providing this kind of service. The local vets and bureaucrats have not responded adequately to the situation. Something had to be done.”

Yamasaki knows what he is talking about. The Kobe native first became involved with animal rescue after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. As in Fukushima, many pets were left behind because their owners were not permitted to bring animals to the evacuation centers. Although there were initially plenty of willing volunteers on hand to help, they needed someone to coordinate and streamline all the various efforts, and Yamasaki found himself stepping into that role. He went on to study NPO management in the United States and Canada for 10 years.

“I then realized a bigger problem existed. In the years after the earthquake, the number of feral kittens in Kobe increased. I did some quite detailed statistical research and worked out how many animals various areas could support, and the optimum rate of spaying and neutering — 70 percent — that was necessary to achieve this.”

Yamasaki opened the No More Homeless Animals Clinic in Kobe in 2006. No local vets were willing to be involved, so he called on the services of two sympathetic vets from the Kanto region to perform the operations, and relied on a network of volunteers to trap and bring in the cats.

“In the decade between the Hanshin earthquake and the Kobe clinic opening, the number of kittens being gassed by the city rose,” Yamasaki explains. “However, following our efforts to sterilize the feral cats in the region, the killings dropped year on year between 2006 and 2012. The TNR (trap, neuter, return) model clearly works.”

Still busy with the Kobe clinic, Yamasaki originally had no plans for any kind of long-term relief work in Fukushima.

“Then, after hearing how bleak the situation was from animal-rescue volunteers, I knew there was an urgent need for a spaying clinic up there, too.”

His initial idea was to set up a clinic within an existing shelter run by Fukushima Prefecture and the Fukushima Veterinary Medical Association, and he attempted to interest local vets in the operative methods that had worked so well in Kobe. He soon found himself running up against a brick wall, however, as the local old-boys network closed ranks and any tentative signs of interest were quickly squashed.

“There’s a distinct inaka seishin (provincial mentality) in these communities. You can’t rock the boat if you want to fit in. The local government officials and businessmen like things to stay as they are.”

Undeterred, Yamasaki and his supporters went ahead and set up the Fukushima Spay Clinic in rented premises near a shopping mall. In a carefully orchestrated operation, volunteers round up animals in time for the biweekly visits by the clinic’s sole vet, Dr. Fumie Endo, who travels all the way from Shizuoka each time. ARSF had set a target of sterilizing at least 1,000 Fukushima animals in 2013, a figure that was reached in September.

Efforts are focused on feral and abandoned animals, but the clinic also accepts pets for low-cost spaying and neutering. Yamasaki says that the clinic’s location next to a laundromat means it has attracted lots of attention from passersby.

“People bring their clothes to the laundromat because they can’t hang washing outside, due to concerns about radiation. Then they see the clinic and want to know more.”

While Yamasaki is pleased with how well the clinic is functioning, he is disillusioned with the lack of official support.

“When I visited the one government-run shelter in the area in Miharu, it had only pets belonging to evacuees,” he says. “The cats and dogs were simply kept in cages with no attempt at sterilization, and the staff were doing nothing to help the feral animal population around the shelter, even though there was plenty of room.”

Shelter staff told Yamasaki they would not spay or neuter any pets without the owners’ permission. While Kobe had a regulation in place allowing sterilization of animals abandoned for more than a month, there is no such provision in Fukushima. Owners retain their “rights” to the animal even when it is obvious they have no real intention of ever claiming it back.

Susan Roberts, co-founder of the Japan Cat Network, shares Yamasaki’s frustration with the situation. JCN runs two shelters, including one in the city of Inawashiro in Fukushima. She tells the story of one local woman who stepped in to rescue animals but ended up becoming overwhelmed with the sheer numbers.

“She had stayed behind, living at her house, in a dangerously radiated area, specifically to help animals. She was doing much of this work all on her own at the time, going around to homes feeding dogs, cats, chickens,” Roberts explains. “But now she has too many animals, and not enough resources to provide good care.”

Although this woman had the best of intentions, ARSF had to provide veterinary care to some of the cats she brought in for sterilization, since they had become sick due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions at her residence. At one stage, the municipal pound in Koriyama were even calling on her to take in more animals without investigating her situation or providing adequate support.

It isn’t as if there has been a lack of financial support for the animals of Fukushima. According to Yamasaki, both overseas donors and the Japanese public have given generously to the official organization charged with disbursing funds to help the animals, but little of the money has yet been used for its intended purpose.

“The organization, based in Tokyo, is called the Dobutsu Kyuen Honbu (Headquarters for the Relief of Animals in Emergencies). It was set up after the Hanshin earthquake with the intention of helping in future emergencies. In reality, it has done nothing of the kind.”

In a story that was picked up by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in August, Yamasaki says that poor investment decisions have so far led to losses of ¥8.4 million after the purchase of mutual funds in 2006. A massive ¥200 million currently sits in the organization’s account with no designated purpose.

Elizabeth Oliver, founder of Animal Refuge Kansai and one of Japan’s most respected animal advocates, and Yamasaki sent a joint letter to the Dobutsu Kyuen Honbu requesting an investigation into their financial matters.

“Nothing has been made clear and there are many discrepancies,” Oliver says. “We were just told that the person who made the bad investment had since left the organization. I had hoped that lessons learned from the Kobe earthquake would result in better management of animals during future disasters. Disappointingly, that hasn’t been the case in Fukushima. I doubt that things will change much.”

Dobutsu Kyuen Honbu did not respond to a request for comment from The Japan Times.

While Yamasaki harbors no illusions about any changes in the bureaucracy, he sees definite potential for altering the mindset of regular citizens in regard to animal welfare.

“Traditionally, pet owners in Fukushima don’t neuter or spay their animals,” he says. “When a female pet has an unwanted litter, it’s quite typical to take the newborn babies to the nearest river and drown them.”

He sees the Fukushima Spay Clinic as a platform for education in responsible pet ownership, and plans to take part in the Humane Society International’s World Spay Day 2014 in February.

“Vets usually charge inflated prices for neutering and spaying. Many people don’t have the funds for it and we don’t want to force it on them,” Yamasaki says. “But, through being open with our activities at the spay clinic, we can show people it’s possible to perform the operations at a low cost. Our volunteers are working to change the attitude of the local people — even if we can’t change the authorities.”

Animal Rescue System Fund: www.animalrescue-sf.org/fukushima_eng/index.html. Japan Cat Network: japancatnetwork.org. ARK: www.arkbark.net. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • bettebean

    I just want to say THANK YOU to these wonderful people who are trying to help the animals in Fukushima. I wish I could do more than just donate money.