When the March 11 earthquake hit Japan, Niigata resident Isabella Gallaon-Aoki “missed it completely.” Ironic, in that she would soon find herself in the very bowels of the disaster area, and travel there some 20 times over the next two months.

A resident of Japan for 25 years, Gallaon-Aoki was out walking with her younger daughter when the quake struck. “It was the day her entrance examination results came out for high school,” she explains, “and I tried to phone my husband to tell him she’d passed, but couldn’t get through.” Her first thought was that she hadn’t paid her phone bill, “always a possibility with me, I admit.”

Soon, however, on a store TV screen, Gallaon-Aoki saw the images of the tsunami. “I thought, my God, this is horrendous.” Her next thoughts were that there would be animals involved. “I don’t want to be portrayed as an animal freak who doesn’t care about human beings. But what I do is rescue animals, and I thought that had to be my role,” she says.

Founder of the animal shelter Animal Friends Niigata and the pet boarding facility Animal Garden, Gallaon-Aoki was born in Italy, where she lived until moving to England at the age of 8. She had come to Japan to study the language in 1986 and stayed, first in Tokyo, and later in Niigata, after marrying a native of the area.

Always an animal lover, she remembers being shocked when she realized the primitive state of animal welfare in Japan and the dearth of shelters. Gradually, through a fateful turn of events, she became more and more involved with the small Japanese groups that did exist to help animals, but eventually saw the need to split off and start a shelter, which she did four years ago.

Gallaon-Aoki’s shelter is relatively unique in Japan in that it is a no-kill shelter that also opens its door to all animals, regardless of age, health or behavioral problems. “We try to take in what animals we can regardless of what problems they have. A lot of groups just take in animals that are easily adoptable” she explains. “I can see the practical reasons, but on a fundamental level, I disagree strongly because I believe all animals have a right to some kind of life.”

Before the disaster, Animal Friends had already found new homes for some 400 animals and was housing about 120 more. Now, the number of cats and dogs (and a few other species) finding sanctuary with Gallaon-Aoki has nearly doubled.

Three days after the quake, Gallaon-Aoki packed her car with food, water, gasoline and supplies and set off eastward with two others. “This was at a time when the authorities were saying, ‘Don’t come.’ . . . Just feeling our way around, we got in and asked around where the badly hit areas were.” The rescue party made its way into what they found to be “a completely devastated landscape, without a single living soul.” After going to a few areas, it “was very, very obvious that nothing would have survived,” Gallaon-Aoki says. “The tsunami was just complete. Everything was wiped out, be it human, animal, whatever.”

In the ensuing days, however, Gallaon-Aoki realized there were indeed those in need of help, the survivors of the tsunami who had fled with their pets and were now desperate to get help for them or even to be allowed to stay with them.

“It was the usual story, people with animals not being allowed into evacuation centers, animals in distress, no medication, no kind of medical care of any kind, no food,” Gallaon-Aoki says.

Gallaon-Aoki traveled from evacuation center to center, leaving food and her contacts, letting authorities and people in need of help for their animals know that she could provide it. She was also able to come to the aid of animals that had been rescued but had no one to care for them. One, Gallaon-Aoki says, “was a Corgi that survived floating on a roof for three days, swept out to sea with the owner. The dog was rescued, alone. Gallaon-Aoki took him in and remembers how he had been at the time. “I have never seen a look in any dog’s eye like the look in that dog’s eye when he first came. It was complete terror.”

Those days she will never forget. “My life has not been the same. It’s completely changed. Seeing what the people are going through and have gone through and actually going there and talking to them and getting to know them, and seeing the devastation and the bits and pieces of people’s lives scattered everywhere, it can’t not change you. It really can’t,” she says.

Meanwhile, in the Fukushima area, evacuation orders sparked many owners to abandon their animals, leading to a “horrific” situation, one that still, to a large extent, exists. “There are all these traumatized animals running around and there again you can see the haunted look in their eyes. They don’t know what’s happened to them. They don’t know why they’re in this situation. They’re abandoned, they’re scared. They’re hungry. They’re suffering.”

Gallaon-Aoki traveled repeatedly to the area, as have numerous other groups and volunteers, and succeeded in picking up as many animals as she could. Some were so happy to see her, they leapt into the crates she had to transport them back to Niigata in. Others, becoming increasingly feral after being abandoned, were impossible to catch.

When the area around the nuclear power plant was closed off, however, it turned an already dreadful situation into a nightmare. It also set off phone calls from desperate, crying owners begging Gallaon-Aoki to try to get their animals out. “Those are the worst,” she says, of the some 40 phone calls a day for help she still receives. Left behind after owners were assured they would be allowed to return in a few days to get them, the cats and dogs locked in homes or tied on outside were literally starving to death.

Gallaon-Aoki, who has been coordinating with volunteers or going herself to try to help, tells of one tearful phone call from an owner trying to get help for her two dogs. Gallaon-Aoki came through for her. “Volunteers got in literally just before the deadline. The dogs were chained up and neither of the two had died, though another one had. The volunteers, who left the area after it was closed off, were stopped and questioned by police, but did manage to get the dogs out.”

Another call, this one after the area’s borders had closed, came from an owner’s daughter in Kyushu. The mother, in Ibaraki, was distraught, unable to sleep and frantic to help her dog, Non, which had been left tied outside their home. “The daughter said, ‘Please, please, if you can get back into the area, can you leave food for him?’ They had left Non believing they could get him the next day, but were stopped by police and told they couldn’t go in.”

It was the early days, however, and roadblocks were not up at night. “We drove in,” Gallaon-Aoki says. “It was about 4 km from the power plant and quite horrific. The roads were all cracked. I had the address and put it in the car navigation system and we got straight there. (Non) was still alive.” Gallaon-Aoki was able to get him out and the owner and Non were happily reunited. “She was absolutely incredulous, couldn’t believe that we had gotten him out.” Animal Friends took Non in until, shortly later, the owners managed to find a new home where they could keep him.

“It’s heartbreaking. There are a lot of people concerned about their animals. That’s the last thing they need on top of losing everything else,” says Gallaon-Aoki. “To be put through that kind of emotional trauma. It’s so unnecessary.”

Gallaon-Aoki is especially critical of the disaster response regarding animals. Though she has found Fukushima officials at the local level to be “quite cooperative” and willing to help, even they and rescue efforts are being blocked by the central government.

Gallaon-Aoki finds the situation “very frustrating” and says it “is still not being dealt with. It’s just unforgivable. It doesn’t need to be like this. There is no end of volunteers and rescue groups that are ready to go in,” she points out.

“We had the (1995 Great) Hanshin Earthquake, and that was an absolute mess as far as animal welfare was concerned. Then we had two earthquakes in Niigata and, especially the second time, they coped quite well. The animals were helped, not euthanized as far as I know. The authorities had some kind of system. But with this new disaster, this hasn’t happened. We’re back to square one.”

Although the magnitude of the disaster is, in part, a factor, Gallaon-Aoki is not wholly sympathetic. “Japan is a country that is prone to natural disasters, full stop,” she says. “But we again have people sleeping in their cars with their pets. Surely, the authorities, with a little more effort, could do something from the beginning to insure that people with pets have somewhere to put their animals and they don’t have to go through this extreme psychological and emotional trauma on top of everything else they’re dealing with.”

In the case of the Fukushima area, there also appears to be no excuse or explanation as to why the pleas and offers to help from a number of animal groups and volunteers have fallen on deaf ears.

Gallaon-Aoki, however, carries on as best she can. Volunteers, donations, food and especially people willing to foster animals or adopt, she says, are needed and welcome.

“It’s not anywhere near the end of the animal rescue. We still have a lot more to do. We’re past the ‘oh, my God!’ panic, panic stage, but there are still a lot of animals that need rescuing, especially around the nuclear power plant. There are still animals in a bad situation, living in cars or short of food,” she explains. Temporary housing is also not likely to be an option for people with animals. “I’m being told they are last on the list,” Gallaon-Aoki says.

“Plus, people’s lives have been completely destroyed. If they haven’t given up their animals immediately, at some point, they may do so. They have to move on and they may not be able to keep them,” she points out. “This is going to be ongoing.”

To contact Gallaon-Aoki, call 090-4624-3301 or see the Animal Friends Niigata website at http//:www.afniigata.org

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