A campaign is underway to create emergency response teams across Japan to provide aid for pets and livestock during natural disasters, following the establishment of such services in a number of prefectures.

Formed in the wake of failures following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku region, the Veterinary Medical Assistance Team, or VMAT — consisting of veterinarians and animal caretakers — was started to respond more effectively in times of need.

“Usually animal welfare groups and vets do go to rescue during natural calamities … but things got out of control during the Great East Japan Earthquake,” said Shinichi Hayama, a professor at Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University, referring to the disaster in Fukushima Prefecture.

“Until then (March 2011) the trend was that people would get involved in rescue efforts on an individual basis, and do as much as they could. But (in Fukushima) tens of thousands of animals were abandoned due to the tsunami and nuclear accident,” leading to a system like VMAT to deal with large-scale disasters.

The absence of a common approach also proved harmful to rescue efforts in Fukushima.

“The absence of a common language, common understanding and a common system among the rescuers and between the rescuers and those receiving aid made it difficult for us to deliver aid in 2011,” Masaki Okonogi, head of the VMAT in Gunma Prefecture, said.

Though Fukuoka Prefecture pioneered the first VMAT in the country, Hayama has taken the initiative to expand the organization.

“We need to save animals not just for their sake, but also to save humans as many people do not evacuate during a disaster because they do not want to leave their animals alone,” he said.

Hayama established the Japanese Association of Disaster Veterinary Medicine in 2014. It conducts seminars in various prefectures with the aim of establishing VMATs. Okonogi also joined the group, after which VMAT in Gunma was established.

VMAT — the animal version of the Disaster Management Assistance Team that provides aid to humans during disasters — was initially formed in Fukuoka in 2013. It was established in Gunma and Osaka last year.

While Tokyo’s VMAT is being created, within this year VMATs are expected to also be formed in Nagoya, Sapporo, and a prefecture in Shikoku that has not yet been decided. The Japan Veterinary Medical Association will be in charge of expanding the service with the support of Hayama’s team.

The group started providing training to its members from 2014, which led to an improved performance in emergency aid after a series of earthquakes hit Kumamoto Prefecture in April last year.

Stressing the importance of such a system, Hayama said trained vets conduct research to find “what kind of support is required in which area” and that is not possible on an individual level. “It is important to answer the needs of victims and set priorities,” he said.

There are, however, many challenges ahead.

Local vets, welfare organizations and government officials need to be more aware of the VMAT’s activities.

“Though communication among aid workers moved a step forward, this time the issue was the lack of knowledge at the receiving end, such as local vets, welfare organizations and government officials,” said Okonogi, who was one of the four members sent by the national vet association to Kumamoto.

“What we learned most was the importance of consistent training for both sides — the receiving and the supporting ends — so that we can use a common language.”

Further communication with animal caretakers and training is necessary to make the aid process quicker, he said.

Another issue is that vets are not beneficiaries of the country’s Disaster Relief Act — a law designed to protect victims of disasters and maintain social order.

Doctors, architects and government officials are permitted access to disaster areas, and are provided an allowance and compensation in cases of accidents or death, but vets are not guaranteed the same treatment.

Even if they are allowed access to designated areas, they play a limited role as “volunteers,” which is a hindrance in attracting help, Hayama said.

The reality, however, is that animals may need to be in a shelter for longer periods, up to a month or more, as they develop stress and related diseases, requiring a large number of people who can work on them in rotation.

In a bid to deal with the issue, Tokyo and Gunma prefectures have signed a pact with their municipalities to provide volunteers with allowances and compensation.

Hayama said it was important to spread VMATS throughout the nation to handle such crises.

“Hundreds of thousands of animals are expected to be affected if an inland earthquake hits Tokyo or the Nankai Trough off central and western Japan, and they cannot be aided just with the help of volunteers,” said Hayama. “There is a need to start preparations from now and training. You cannot expect the VMAT of the region that has been affected by a calamity to respond, and therefore support is required from areas not affected by it,” he said. “You never know when a calamity will hit, so it is important to have VMATs everywhere.”

While mentioning the need to change the Disaster Relief Act, he added, “To be able to change the law, we first need to be recognized by society (at large).”

He also said their efforts were highlighted during the Kumamoto disaster, showing people the importance of their activities.

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