Fukushima: animal kingdom

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Kumassy is a cat. As yet he has no owner.

No one knows where or when he was born, only that he was found slinking through the damp, cold streets of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture on Dec. 28 before being scooped up by what is likely to be the first human being he ever encountered.

After undergoing a thorough medical examination and spending several weeks adapting to his new life in captivity, Kumassy was taken to a cat cafe in Chiba, joining 16 other former strays from Fukushima Prefecture at an event that was organized to pair them with new owners.

Like many of the cats rescued from the restricted zones after March 11, 2011, Kumassy is “extremely wary of human beings,” says Kaori Iwasa, director of Cat Lounge Me cafe.

“As three years have now passed since the quake, many of the tragic memories have faded,” Iwasa says.

“However, there are still a lot of animals that have been left behind in the no-go areas and there are a lot of volunteers that are still trying to help stray pets,” she says.

“If all these volunteers were to quit tomorrow, many animals in Fukushima will die,” Iwasa says. “That is why I am willing to provide logistical support in any way I can.”

When residents were ordered to evacuate large swathes of the prefecture in the wake of the hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, they were barred from bringing their pets. Approximately 5,800 dogs were registered as being in the government-designated exclusion zones on the day that residents were ordered to leave their homes. If other pets and unregistered canines are included, some estimates suggest that as many as 10,000 animals were left behind.

“We witnessed scenes that were beyond our imagination,” says Naomi Inoue, a member of nonprofit organization Rescuing Animals in Fukushima, when asked about her first visits back to the region after temporary visits were allowed.

“We saw frail dogs on leashes and cats inside homes. Some of them had already starved to death,” Inoue says. “We saw animal corpses everywhere.”

Many of the animals that managed to survive — including crows, cats, raccoon dogs, civet cats and what appeared to be a hybrid of wild boar and domestic pig — are now roaming in the streets of coastal towns in Fukushima.

“There aren’t that many stray dogs,” says Kuro, a member of RAIF who declined to give his real name. “I assume this is because most dogs were kept on a leash at their homes.”

Kuro visits the region most weekends. He carries 3 tons of pet food on each trip, leaving it behind for the animals to eat after he leaves the area.

He says that winters are particularly gruelling for animals in the prefecture, as food sources become scarce.

Cats rely almost exclusively on the food that RAIF leaves them — especially since their competition includes quicker crows and stronger boars.

RAIF is comprised of about a dozen core members and 60 volunteers who sometimes help out on trips.

RAIF teams have installed cameras to track the movements of abandoned animals.

Recorded images, footprints and traces of their excrement are used to track the pets’ movements. RAIF caught Kumassy in one such search.

“After a cat is caught, we spread the word among locals via our website. If an owner steps forward, we return the cat to them,” Inoue says.

Some people come forward and claim to be the owners, but say they are unable to take care of their pet anymore.

In such cases — or if an owner doesn’t show up after a certain period of time — the cat typically undergoes a medical check before spending about a month in seclusion and learning to become accustomed to humans.

The cats are then taken to foster homes before a new owner shows a willingness to take care of the animal.

“I’m sure the owners of these cats are sad to abandon their pets, and pray that their pet has been rescued,” Miyuki Arai, who heads RAIF, says in explaining the group’s motives.

If the government is unable to look after stray animals in the region, officials should at least spay and neuter the animals, she says.

Operating on an extremely tight budget, RAIF can only afford to keep 15 cats at a time.

On Feb. 22, the organization was able to pair Kumassy and three other cats found in Fukushima Prefecture with possible new owners.

For RAIF members, this means it’s time to head back to the prefecture and rescue the next batch of stray animals.

“Our project is never-ending,” Arai says.

Rescuing Animals in Fukushima is seeking donations to purchase cat food for pets left behind in the restricted zone in Fukushima. The group is also looking for foster families and new homes for rescued stray cats. For more information, visit raif.exblog.jp.

  • ResqDogz

    What could POSSIBLY been the motivation for “orders” to leave one’s companion animals behind in the evacuation???

    My precious charges are FAMILY, and the only way authorities could have possibly forced my departure without them, would have been to shoot me, first – and drag my corpse away.

    Surely, anyone could have foreseen that this was a de facto death sentence?

    Had I complied, the memories of their trusting faces – shrinking in the distance as I made off to assure my personal safety at the sacrice of theirs – would haunt me to an early grave, either way.

    It would not have been within the capacity of my soul nor psyche to survive such a heartless act.

    Bless you, for helping these forgotten souls: It is impossible to imagine their depth of despair from the realization of utter abandonment they must have eventually resigned to accept, after so long….

    • Eija Niskanen

      They thought that they would be gone for a few days, perhaps a couple of weeks. The utter responsibility falls on Tepco, and also to the local and Japanese government. They should have for ex. evacuated the farming animals too.

    • GRLCowan

      “What could POSSIBLY been the motivation for “orders” to leave one’s companion animals behind in the evacuation???”

      Good question. The answer, I think, is that the Japanese government wanted to make the evacuation more traumatic.

      That trauma has been used to justify the shutdown of all Japan’s *other* nuclear plants, and by *that*, the government gains at least $130 million a month in fossil fuel tax revenue.