National

The animals being cared for in Fukushima’s nuclear zone

‘I want to make sure I am here to take care of the last one’

Cats left behind by fleeing neighbors were taken on by Sakae Kato, who now looks after 41 of the animals. | REUTERS
Cats left behind by fleeing neighbors were taken on by Sakae Kato, who now looks after 41 cats. | REUTERS
By TIM KELLY AND KIM KHYUNG HOON

Reuters

A decade ago, Sakae Kato stayed behind to rescue cats abandoned by neighbors who fled the radiation clouds belching from the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant. He won’t leave.

“I want to make sure I am here to take care of the last one,” he said from his home in the contaminated quarantine zone. “After that I want to die, whether that be a day or hour later.”

So far he has buried 23 cats in his garden, the most recent graves disturbed by wild boars that roam the depopulated community. He is looking after 41 others in his home and another empty building on his property.

Sakae Kato stayed behind in the restricted zone 10 years ago, and says he has no intention of leaving. | REUTERS
Kato stayed behind in the restricted zone 10 years ago, and says he has no intention of leaving. | REUTERS

Kato leaves food for feral cats in a storage shed he heats with a paraffin stove. He has also rescued a dog, Pochi. With no running water, he has to fill bottles from a nearby mountain spring, and drive to public toilets.

The 57-year-old, a small construction business owner in his former life, says his decision to stay as 160,000 other people evacuated the area was spurred in part by the shock of finding dead pets in abandoned houses he helped demolish.

The cats also gave him a reason to stay on land that has been owned by his family for three generations.

Sakae Kato looks after 41 cats in his home in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
Kato looks after 41 cats in his home in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
Kato cleans one of the many cages in this two-story home. | REUTERS
Kato cleans one of the many cages in this two-story home. | REUTERS
Sakae Kato lies in bed next to Charm, a cat he rescued five years ago who is infected with feline leukemia virus, at his home in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
Kato lies in bed next to Charm, a cat he rescued five years ago who is infected with feline leukemia virus, at his home in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS

“I don’t want to leave, I like living in these mountains,” he said standing in front of his house, which he is allowed to visit but, technically, not allowed to sleep in.

The two-story wooden structure is in poor condition.

Rotten floorboards sag. It is peppered with holes where wall panels and roof tiles that kept the rain out were dislodged by a powerful earth tremor last month, stirring frightening memories of the devastating quake on March 11, 2011, that led to a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown.

Sakae Kato estimates he spends around ¥750,000 a month on the stray cats her looks after in Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
Kato estimates he spends around ¥750,000 a month on the stray cats her looks after in Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
An animal rescue activist applies ointment onto the mouth of Mokkun, one of Sakae Kato's rescued cats. | REUTERS
An animal rescue activist applies ointment onto the mouth of Mokkun, one of Kato’s rescued cats. | REUTERS
Sakae Kato prepares food for abandoned and feral cats at a barn in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
Kato prepares food for abandoned and feral cats at a barn in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS

“It might last another two or three years. The walls have started to lean,” Kato said.

Decontamination in fields near his house signal that other residents will soon be allowed to return.

He estimates he spends ¥750,000 ($7,000) a month on his animals, part of it to buy dog food for wild boar that gather near his house at sunset. Farmers consider them pests, and also blame them for wrecking empty homes.

On Feb. 25, Kato was arrested on suspicion of freeing wild boar caught in traps set up by Japan’s government in November. At the time of writing, he was still being detained for questioning.

Yumiko Konishi, a vet from Tokyo who helps Kato, said local volunteers were caring for the cats on his property, but at least one had died since he was detained.

As well as cats, Sakae Kato also feeds wild boars in the vicinity of his home in a restricted zone in Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
As well as cats, Kato also feeds wild boars in the vicinity of his home in a restricted zone in Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
Despite potential risks from radiation, Sakae Kato says he will not leave his home in a restricted area in Fukushima Prefecture.
Despite potential risks from radiation, Kato says he will not leave his home in a restricted area in Fukushima Prefecture. “I don’t want to leave, I like living in these mountains,” he says. | REUTERS
Sakae Kato walks past black bags containing contaminated soil from the fallout of the Fukushima nuclear plant, in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, on Feb. 21. | REUTERS
Kato walks past black bags containing contaminated soil from the fallout of the Fukushima nuclear plant, in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, on Feb. 21. | REUTERS
Sakae Kato's house stands close to a field which is being decontaminated in a restricted zone in Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
Kato’s house stands close to a field which is being decontaminated in a restricted zone in Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS

About 30 kilometers southeast, still in the restricted zone, Hisae Unuma is also surveying the state of her home, which withstood the earthquake a decade ago but is now close to collapsing after years of being battered by wind, rain and snow.

“I’m surprised it’s still standing,” the 67-year-old farmer said, a week after the tremor that damaged Kato’s house.

“I could see my cattle in the field from there,” she said pointing to the living room, a view now blocked by a tangle of bamboo.

Unuma fled as the cooling system at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s nuclear plant 2.5 km away failed and its reactors began to melt down.

Hisae Unuma used to live 2.5 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, before being evacuated. From her farm in Saitama Prefecture, she says she will never return. | REUTERS
Hisae Unuma used to live 2.5 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, before being evacuated. From her farm in Saitama Prefecture, she says she will never return. | REUTERS
Hisae Unuma looks into the house that she lived in, 2.5 kilometers away from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, before being evacuated in March 2011. | REUTERS
Unuma looks into the house that she lived in, 2.5 kilometers away from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, before being evacuated in March 2011. | REUTERS

The government, which has adopted Fukushima as a symbol of national revival amid preparations for the Tokyo Games, is encouraging residents to return to decontaminated land.

Lingering fears about the nuclear plant, jobs and poor infrastructure are keeping many away, though.

Unuma, now a vegetable farmer in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo, where her husband died three years ago, won’t return even if the government scrapes the radioactive soil off her fields.

Radiation levels around her house are around 20 times the background level in Tokyo, according to a dosimeter reading carried out by Reuters.

Only the removal of Fukushima’s radioactive cores will make her feel safe, a task that will take decades to complete.

“Never mind the threat from earthquakes, those reactors could blow if someone dropped a tool in the wrong place,” she said.

Hisae Unuma wears a protective suit as she walks past an incinerator which was built in a rural village near her collapsing home, where she lived before being evacuated. | REUTERS
Unuma wears a protective suit as she walks past an incinerator which was built in a rural village near her collapsing home, where she lived before being evacuated. | REUTERS

Before making the four-hour drive back to her new home, Unuma visits the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock in protest against the government and Tokyo Electric Power.

Among the 233 bullocks still there is the last surviving bullock from the 50-strong herd Unuma used to tend, and one of her last living links to the life she had before the disaster.

Her bullock ignores her when she tries to lure him over, so Yoshizawa gives her a handful of cabbage to try to tempt him.

“The thing about cattle, is that they really only think about food,” Yoshizawa said.

Bullocks stand on a field at the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock after the 2011 nuclear disaster. | REUTERS
Bullocks stand on a field at the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock after the 2011 nuclear disaster. | REUTERS
Masami Yoshizawa takes a break after feeding cattle at the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock in protest against the government and Tepco. | REUTERS
Yoshizawa takes a break after feeding cattle at the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock in protest against the government and Tepco. | REUTERS
The remains of cattle lie on the ground at the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa in Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
The remains of cattle lie on the ground at the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa in Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS

More photo essays

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)