National

Vet pushes for shelters that can keep pets and owners together during disasters

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

A veterinarian from Kumamoto Prefecture who provided shelter to pets and their owners in the wake of April’s earthquakes in Kyushu is urging lawmakers to prepare similar facilities for future disasters.

As part of that effort, Ryunosuke Tokuda, 54, submitted a petition containing 33,990 signatures late last month to Diet lawmaker Yorihisa Matsuno of the Democratic Party, who belongs to a lawmakers’ group on animal protection.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck off the Tohoku region in March 2011, pets weren’t allowed in most evacuation shelters, forcing many owners to avoid the very facilities that could supply them with emergency provisions. Instead, many decided to sleep in their cars.

Tokuda said he realized he needed to find a way to help pet owners in emergencies after visiting Tohoku less than a week after the quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis began.

“When I visited Tohoku, dogs and cats had been placed in shelters” separate from their owners, he said. “I could have brought them back to Kumamoto, but they kept looking for their owners. Pets and owners shouldn’t be separated.”

After several animal organizations were dispatched to the area to deal with pets, the Environment Ministry compiled guidelines emphasizing the importance of getting municipalities to help out by asking animal hospitals, rights organizations and volunteers to render assistance. Although it also said pets should be allowed to stay at shelters, it stopped short of allowing them to sleep there out of consideration for human evacuees.

Tokuda said that wasn’t enough.

“Evacuated pets should be allowed to stay inside the shelters,” he said.

Tokuda is now a pioneer on this front.

When Kyushu was struck by strong earthquakes in April, he was prepared. His Ryunosuke Animal Hospital in the city of Kumamoto provided shelter for about 1,000 pet owners and 2,000 animals ranging from dogs and cats to turtles.

The veterinarian had renovated his animal hospital two years prior so it could accommodate evacuees. It was stocked with food and water and even its own power generator.

Still, unexpected needs arose.

“We were short on IVs,” said Tokuda. “Pets were dehydrated because they were unable to eat or drink. Pets feel nervous after aftershocks, and many of them throw up what they eat, or get diarrhea.”

Although pet food arrived from around Japan, it took some animals a month after the quake to start eating again.

Despite the obvious need, the Environment Ministry said it is difficult to prod municipalities to build separate shelters specifically for pet owners due to financial, social and other constraints.

The concept of allowing pets into centers is still new, and the ministry’s guideline was actually meant to spread the idea and promote understanding, said ministry official Motomitsu Taguchi.

But Taguchi also sees a need to update the guidelines after witnessing the events in Kumamoto.

“We realized the need for pets to be accepted in evacuation shelters,” he said, adding that the ministry plans to form a council by next April to revise it.