My first day there was spent with the Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS), an organization temporarily set up in Niigata. JEARS is a coalition of three animal groups that are run by foreigners and Japanese that got together immediately after the earthquake and were one of the first on the ground to help in animal rescue. (The three groups are Animal Friends Niigata (AFN), HEART – Tokushima, and Japan Cat Network). Their postings on Facebook were quickly caught on by many concerned animal lovers, myself included.
Kinship Circle works with JEARS in its efforts which is why I was there. The Kinship team had just moved to Sendai a day earlier to be closer to the disaster area…but I was still 4 ½ hours from them. The reason that JEARS is so far away from the disaster area is to be closer to the no-kill animal shelter, Animal Friends Niigata.
I watched as Susan Roberts (of Japan Cat Network), Selena Hoy, and Tim Exley worked together as a team efficiently and professionally. I was very impressed and proud to be part of this network.
The second day, Tim had to do a “drop off” and “pick up” and took me along to show me the ropes. This was the best training and introduction to the work I would be doing.
He took me to Animal Friends Niigata to pick up Koro, who was going home. Koro had his tail stuck tightly between his legs, panting, and would jump whenever he was touched. This poor guy had no idea what was going on. We loaded him up on the van and headed out to the disaster area 4 ½ hours away.
Tim showed me the ways of the road as I would be one of the drivers for our team later. I hadn’t driven in Japan for over 20 years…and saying to myself “stay on the left, stay on the left” became my mantra while driving there. He used his iPhone for navigation, along with a GPS system that couldn’t be counted on, and a map in kanji. Unfortunately, especially for me, there are no local road maps in English. I ended up using the maps in Kanji myself later, which I somehow managed and by the end of the trip, was very proud to have put that on to my list of challenges met during my trip! Thank goodness I speak the language…not fluently, but very, very well.
He showed me how to use the Geiger counters and how to take the measurements. He showed me the different “pockets” where radiation levels changed, and even how to talk with the border patrols that we ran into. I must say that the police on the patrol were all very gracious and polite. You could sense that they were appreciative of our efforts, but their jobs required them to keep all people out of the restricted areas for our safety. They were always helpful in providing any information that they could.
The government has closed off the area 20 km from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. People were allowed to return there to retrieve some articles and to feed their pets and farm animals for short spurts of time. Then they suddenly closed it without any warning to the people who live there. The animals were suddenly left without any food or water and forced to starve…many to a slow and horrendous death.
In Japan, there are no stray dogs as they are put down at the shelters if nobody claims them in 72 hours. During disaster times, the rules are lifted. I was told that government workers are shifted from one section to another meaning that someone who works for taxes may find themselves working in the government animal shelters next, and then go on to work at another department. So, it’s pretty much the roll of a dice for the pets of whether there happens to be someone who appreciates animals or not working in the animal shelters. This is why it was so critical to us to bring the animals to AFN even if it was 4 1/2 hours away.
The residents living just outside the 20 km restricted zone had seen an influx of animals, usually roaming in packs, right after the disaster. They would see 30 to 40 dogs out looking for their families and for food. Most dogs waited at home for their families to come back…and many are still there today…waiting.