TOKYO––Aftershocks from the March 11, 2011 earthquake that devastated the Tohoku region of Japan long since faded into occasional tremors. Debris from the tsunami that followed has mostly been cleared away, except in the no-man’s-land surrounding the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactor complex.
But repercussions for animals continue, including the rise of activism on multiple fronts that may reshape the politics of animal welfare in Japan.
Initially, and for more than a year afterward, Japanese animal advocates fought for access to the no-man’s-land in order to rescue the animals left behind. The rescue effort evolved into attempts to extend humane services on a permanent basis to a part of Japan which before the disaster of March 11, 2011 had none.
More recently, post-tsunami activism has morphed into a demand for greater accountability on the part of the Japanese animal welfare establishment.
The demand for greater accountability mirrors, echoes, and to some extent overlaps the post-tsunami demand of Japanese society as a whole for greater accountability from government agencies; from a nuclear power industry which before the disaster was almost immune from scrutiny; and from mass media whose pre-March 2011 idea of investigative reporting was to occasionally ask polite questions after restating press releases.
Post-earthquake and tsunami, recently recalled Animal Refuge Kansai founder Elizabeth Oliver, “Many people were dead [1,656 in Fukushima Prefecture alone, 15,884 overall] and their homes destroyed. Many of those remaining,” about 300,000 according to Japan Times, “were forced to leave their homes due to the fear of nuclear radiation leaking out from the four stricken nuclear power plants in Fukushima. Thousands of animals perished, including farm animals left to die and family pets left behind. Some were set free, some escaped and were rescued by animal welfare organizations, including ARK.
“At the same time,” Oliver continued, “an emergency coalition was formed to rescue animals from the disaster. It was called kyuen honbu and consisted of four groups: the Japan Animal Welfare Society, the Japan Veterinary Association, Nihon Doobutsu Aigo Kyookai, and Nihon Aigan Doobutsu Kyookai. The coalition appealed for funds to help the animals in Tohoku. The public responded generously: around 700 million yen was collected,” worth about $6.6 million U.S. dollars or five million euros, “both from within Japan and from abroad.
“However,” Oliver said, “what has become of these funds, and how they were used, as well as how much is still remaining, is unclear. This has become an issue which has caught media attention, and a lawsuit brought by people who donated money to help animals in Tohoku is currently underway,” led by the Animal Rescue System Fund, “which has spearheaded a neutering campaign in Fukushima to reduce the population explosion of feral cats and dogs in Tohoku, a result of the disaster.”
Acknowledged Animal Rescue System Fund founder Hiro Yamasaki, “I’ve been quite critical of the Japan Veterinary Medical Association. I think it is not them who should hold the disaster reserve fund, because they had not started anything” before critical media reports surfaced, months after the earthquake and tsunami. “They started a shelter in Tokyo in September 2011,” Yamasaki acknowledged, but “by then they had already had 400 million yen,” while animal rescue organizations working in the Fukushima region for months had received little of the international outpouring of aid.
Animal Rescue System Fund
Yamasaki, originally from Kobe, “first became involved with animal rescue after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995,” wrote Louise George Kittaka for Japan Times in December 2013. “As in Fukushima, many pets were left behind because their owners were not permitted to bring animals to the evacuation centers. Although there were initially plenty of willing volunteers on hand to help, they needed someone to coordinate and streamline all the various efforts, and Yamasaki found himself stepping into that role. He went on to study nonprofit management in the United States and Canada for 10 years,” including two multi-day research visits to ANIMALS 24-7 founder Merritt Clifton and a 2005 internship with Los Angeles high-volume dog and cat sterilization pioneer Marvin Mackie, DVM.
“I then realized a bigger problem existed,” Yamasaki told Louise George Kittaka. “In the years after the Hanshin earthquake, the number of feral kittens in Kobe increased. I did some quite detailed statistical research and worked out how many animals various areas could support, and the optimum rate of spaying and neutering––70%––that was necessary to achieve this.”
In 2006 Yamasaki opened the No More Homeless Animals Clinic in Kobe, to do sterilizations for local neuter/return practitioners.
“In the decade between the Hanshin earthquake and the Kobe clinic opening, the number of kittens being gassed by the city rose,” Yamasaki observed. “However, following our efforts to sterilize the feral cats in the region, the killings dropped year after year between 2006 and 2012. The trap, neuter, return model clearly works.”
Following the Fukushima disaster, Yamasaki initially tried to start a similar high-volume spay/neuter clinic within an existing animal shelter run by Fukushima Prefecture and the Fukushima Veterinary Medical Association. Encountering only opposition to the idea, Kittaka wrote, “Yamasaki and his supporters went ahead and set up the Fukushima Spay Clinic in rented premises near a shopping mall.” The clinic opened in 2012, 18 months after the Tohoku earthquake.
Veterinary surgeon Fumie Endo, who like Yamasaki has U.S. training, journeys to Fukushima twice a week from her home in Shizuoka, 327 kilometers or more than 200 miles away.
“Efforts are focused on feral and abandoned animals, but the clinic also accepts pets for low-cost spaying and neutering,” Kittaka said.
The clinic is next door to a laundromat.
“People bring their clothes to the laundromat because they can’t hang washing outside, due to concerns about radiation,” said Yamasaki. “Then they see the clinic and want to know more.”
Yamasaki meanwhile became disillusioned about the official post-Fukushima disaster rescue program.
“When I visited the one government-run shelter in the area in Miharu,” Yamasaki told Kittaka, “it had only pets belonging to evacuees. The cats and dogs were simply kept in cages with no attempt at sterilization, and the staff were doing nothing to help the feral animal population around the shelter, even though there was plenty of room.”
Explained Kittaka, “Shelter staff told Yamasaki they would not spay or neuter any pets without the owners’ permission. While Kobe had a regulation in place allowing sterilization of animals abandoned for more than a month, there is no such provision in Fukushima. Owners retain their ‘rights’ to the animals even when it is obvious they have no intention of ever claiming them back.”
Dobutsu Kyuen Honbu
The Tohoku kyuen honbu disaster relief coalition described by Elizabeth Oliver of ARK is a project of the Tokyo-based Dobutsu Kyuen Honbu, or “headquarters for the Relief of Animals in Emergencies,” formed by the Japan Veterinary Association and allied organizations in 1995.
“It was set up after the Hanshin earthquake with the intention of helping in future emergencies. In reality, it has done nothing of the kind,” alleges Yamasaki.
Yamasaki points toward apparent mismanagement long predating the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear meltdowns.
Recounted Kitaka, “In a story that was picked up in August 2013 by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, Yamasaki said that poor investment decisions led to losses of 8.4 million yen after the purchase of mutual funds in 2006. Two hundred million yen currently sit in the organization’s account with no designated purpose.”
“Due to the misuse of Kobe’s leftover funds, they didn’t disclose the information regarding the loss of principal until the summer of 2013,” Yamasaki told ANIMALS 24-7. “They disclosed it after the statute of limitations expired.”
“Nothing has been made clear and there are many discrepancies,” said Oliver, a 2012 recipient of the Order of the British Empire, who as an immigrant has been outspoken about animal issues since founding the Animal Refuge Kansai in 1990, but has usually been discreet in her comments about public institutions.
“We were just told that the person who made the bad investment had since left the organization,” Oliver told Kittaka. “I had hoped that lessons learned from the Kobe earthquake would result in better management of animals during future disasters. Disappointingly, that hasn’t been the case in Fukushima. I doubt that things will change much.”
But Yamasaki sees things changing a lot, and has every intention of continuing to force the pace of change, through litigation, advocacy, and presenting a direct challenge to the Japanese veterinary establishment.
“Traditionally, pet owners in Fukushima don’t neuter or spay their animals,” Yamasaki explained to Kittaka. “When a female pet has an unwanted litter, it is quite typical [for the pet caretaker] to take the newborn babies to the nearest river and drown them. Vets usually charge inflated prices for neutering and spaying. Many people don’t have the funds for it. But, through being open with our activities at the spay clinic, we are showing that it is possible to perform the operations at a low cost. Our volunteers are working to change the attitudes of the local people––even if we can’t change the authorities.”
Added Yamasaki to ANIMALS 24-7, “The head of the Japan Veterinary Association still won’t recognize sterilization as a necessary measure to curb overpopulation, but among the first 1,649 spays/neuters we have performed in Fukushima, 49.6% of animals were less than one year old.”
The Dobutsu Kyuen Honbu nominally favors a traditional shelter-based rescue model over the sterilization-centered model demonstrated by Yamasaki and the Animal Rescue System Fund, but has not adequately supported sheltering either, Japan Cat Network cofounder Susan Roberts told Kittaka.
The Japan Cat Network operates two shelters, “including one in the city of Inawashiro in Fukushima,” Kittaka narrated.
There, Roberts met a local rescuer who “had stayed behind at her house, in a dangerously radiated area, specifically to help animals, going around to homes feeding dogs, cats, and chickens.” The Koriyama municipal pound referred animals to the local rescuer for emergency sheltering. But no assistance was made available to her, according to Roberts, until the Japan Cat Network and the Animal Rescue System Fund intervened after “some of the cats she brought in for sterilization became sick due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions at her residence.”
Animal Refuge Kansai, meanwhile, in June 2014 opened a new dog shelter in Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture, about 20 miles from Osaka, to promote adoptions of dogs rescued from the Fukushima area, far to the northeast.
“Setting a new standard for animal welfare centers in Japan,” according to Alice Gordenker in a report for Japan Times, the 22-kennel shelter “was built by a local construction company using indoor kennel components imported from Britain. Some of the first animals to occupy the new kennels—transferred in late May from ARK’s present location in Nose, Osaka Prefecture—are dogs rescued after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami,” whose former caretakers “still live in temporary housing.”
Demands for greater accountability from public institutions in the wake of the Fukushima disaster have also come from farmers in the Tohoku region. Representatives of the nonprofit farming cooperative Kibo no Bokujo (Farm of Hope) on June 20, 2014 transported a large black cow with white spots on her hide into the middle of Tokyo as part of a demonstration demanding an official investigation into why many livestock in the vicinity have developed similar symptoms.
Explained Japan Times, “Kibo no Bokujo is 14 kilometers (9 miles) from the Fukushima nuclear complex and is keeping some 350 cows who were abandoned when their owners fled the radiation.”
The continuing presence of elevated radiation in the area was underscored by a July 2014 paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Summarized Monte Morin of The Los Angeles Times, “Researchers tested Japanese macaques captured and killed in a forest about 40 miles from the power plant and compared the results to macaques in Shimokita Peninsula, a remote area in the country’s north. Monkeys in the vicinity of Fukushima City had detectable levels of radioactive cesium in their muscles, while the northern monkeys did not. Researchers also found that the Fukushima simians had significantly lower white and red blood cell counts compared with macaque troops almost 200 miles away.”
The Fukushima macaques are believed to have absorbed cesium by feeding on tree buds and bark, which have accumulated cesium since the Fukushima meltdowns.
Said lead study author Kazuhiko Ochiai, ofNippon Veterinary & Life Science University in Tokyo, “These results suggest that the exposure to some form of radioactive material contributed to hematological changes in Fukushima monkeys. Low blood cell cont does not necessarily mean that the health of individual monkeys is at risk. However, it may suggest that the immune system has been compromised to some extent, potentially making individual animals and the entire troop susceptible to, for example, epidemic infectious disease.”