Five years ago, an earthquake and a tsunami hit the Fukushima region of Japan, causing a disaster at a nuclear power plant. As the area became ravished by radioactive material, residents fled, often forced to leave their pets behind to fend for themselves.
In the aftermath, rescue organizations stepped up and began attempts to help out the abandoned (and often injured) animals. Here Susan Roberts, from the Japan Cat Network, gives us an update on the cats of Fukushima.
What was your first reaction when you heard about the disaster?
I was watching TV and I saw the water moving over the houses and, to be honest, my first reaction was to think about the dogs tied up behind the houses. I thought they had no chance of escaping. A lot of the dogs here in Japan are tied up in chains.
Then 10 days later I was out in the evacuated area picking up animals.
How bad was it?
It was bad, really bad, because Japan does not have a good infrastructure for humane sheltering. They didn’t have humane places to keep all the animals. People just let their animals go; farms left many animals behind to starve. It was pretty horrific. I have to be honest, one of the worst things for me was to see people separated from their animals. It was the people who really made me hang in there and stay with it.
When it comes to cats, what sort of issues did they face after the disaster?
Honestly, people thought that cats would be able to fend for themselves. Most of the people in Japan feel like they didn’t have a choice because a lot of the human shelters wouldn’t accept cats or would make people put them outside just to run free, so a lot of people did what they thought was best which was to just put their cat outside their house and leave it there and hope for the best. These are not bad people — they just didn’t have a choice.
The cats learned to go to the sides of the roads because anybody going through the zone might be in a car and they learned to listen to cars. They’d wait at the site of the roads and we’d go out on more than a weekly basis to look for them.
It seems crazy that cats would learn to listen out for cars.
Yes, they would come running down the road. They’d listen to the van — they got very good at that.
When did you start setting up the feeding stations?
You know, early on we realized that once it got to be winter, the cats would not be able to wait for us by the side of the road, so setting up the feeding stations was a way to have them be able to come and get access to food at any time they wanted.
Did you manage to reunite many cats with their owners?
No, it was more dogs than cats that we managed to reunite. I think it was harder to reunite with cats and I think people imagined the best for their cats, they thought they were probably okay. That being said, a year after the disaster we were getting ready to go in and we had a list of people who were still looking for their cats. We called three of them at random and every single person sobbed into the phone and said to us, “Can you please, please look for my cat?”
This was a year after the disaster, so I do think people really regretted walking away.
How many animals do you think you rescued?
Oh, wow, that’s a hard one because our feeding stations are still in operation. It also spread to have other groups using our feeding stations and putting food in them. I know we picked up more than 600 animals, and that includes cats, dogs, and chickens. We were putting more than 100 kilograms of food out a week, so we fed a lot of cats.
Did any of the cats show lasting medical issues from the disaster?
Absolutely. There were certainly issues related to just starvation and dehydration, but there were also cases where we think it was related to radiation, like cats with hair loss and kidney issues and liver failure.
How heartbreaking was it to work through?
You know, it was, but I think during that time everything was a crisis every single day, so it’s hard for me to remember specifically feeling heartbroken about one case — it was a crisis every single day.
Have you heard about many success stories from people adopting Fukushima cats?
Absolutely. Every day I still get pictures from people who ended up adopting cats from the disaster areas and they’re doing wonderfully.
Check out the Japan Cat Network’s website for more on its efforts.