TOKYO—They are family members, with names and birthdates, and they are often adorned with cute ribbons, sweaters or socks.
But thousands of these pets are scavenging or starving to death as they wait for their owners to come to homes within a 20-km radius of the Fukushima nuclear power plants, which have been spewing radiation since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
When about 80,000 people were forced to flee explosions at the reactors in March, many couldn’t get fuel for their cars, and they weren’t allowed to bring their pets on buses. Thousands left their dogs and cats at home, thinking they could soon return for them.
More than 70 days later, while they sleep in crowded, noisy evacuation shelters, their pets are still far away, alone or roaming in packs. “I called health officials at the Fukushima prefectural office a few days ago, and they still won’t allow us to rescue the pets,” says Akiko Fujimura, leader of Japan’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The SPCA is one of about 70 groups of animal welfare activists who have been protesting in Tokyo. “Many people want to save these animals, but the government won’t give them permission. It’s really horrible,” says Fujimura. “If the pets have radioactive elements on their skin, it’s no problem to wash it off. I think the government basically doesn’t care about animals.”
The government says the rescues are too risky amid high levels of radiation. They have asked residents, who last week began taking buses to their homes for brief visits to collect photo albums and small valuables, to tie their pets to the front gates for collection. So far, about five government workers have picked up dogs, and only a few, says Fujimura.
According to the environment ministry, at least 5,800 registered dogs lived in the zone before the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake. The number of cats is not available. Fujimura says the numbers could be much higher, since most owners don’t register their pets. The nationwide ratio of pets to humans is one to four, meaning there were probably 20,000 pets in the area, not including horses, birds and other animals.
Pet rescuers such as Makomi Tsuruta say the pets can’t wait for bureaucrats to get their act together. Before the government sealed off the area on April 22, Tsuruta donned protective clothing and face masks and went into the danger zone near the plant with a Geiger counter, food and cages to rescue seven cats upon the request of their owner, a farmer named Mr. O-uchi who lives in an evacuation shelter.
“I wasn’t scared, but the animals were,” she says.
The cats were mangy and starving, and some other cats in the area were feeding on carcasses of dead animals — including other cats, she says. After checking them for radiation and washing them, she had them vaccinated by a veterinarian, then took the seven cats to join 23 already living at her home in Ibaraki prefecture, just south of Fukushima.
Disoriented at first, the seven rescued cats are now eating and adjusting to their 23 new friends, she says. “We want the government to give us more access to the area and to provide more shelters for the animals,” says Tsuruta, during a protest by about 500 animal welfare activists in the Shibuya shopping district of Tokyo. “It’s very hard to find shelters in Japan for pets from the nuclear zone.”
Even pets that went with owners to the Big Palette arena in Koriyama city are at risk of dehydration in hot cars, tied to trees, or staying in rooms lacking air conditioning during the coming summer heat, Fujimura says.
Like many Japanese and foreign activists, Fujimura is sheltering a pet belonging to an evacuee. Her new friend, a Shitsu named “Ringo-chan” — meaning apple — wouldn’t eat for five days. “She was really scared and confused. But now she’s relaxed and eating, and she’s going to be okay. I hear it’s the same with all the other rescued dogs,” she says. “But I worry about other pets. Many people let their pets outside to flee on their own after the explosions. But they are loyal pets, not wild animals. They are waiting for their owners to come home.”