On the night of Thursday June 2nd Susan got word from the Facebook administrators for JEARS' page of a situation at a hokenjo (shelter) in Sendai that was going to gas 35 animals the next day at 10 am. The administrators had heard this from a group called LIA (I'm not sure what the acronym stands for) which said that they needed help transporting and adopting out animals from the shelter. Susan was reluctant to go because, like in the U.S., animals are killed every day in shelters throughout the country and this one pick up would put a major strain on our operations here in Inawashiro without making any actual change beyond the lives of the 35 animals rescued. However, the Facebook people were very insistent that we help, so we set our clocks for 5:30 am.
After a bit of a late start (I mean, really, 5:30 is an unreasonable hour for anyone to be awake), Susan and I left for Sendai with me at the wheel. On the way there, Susan described her previous experiences with hokenjo. She said that the one in her city is horrific. Once they decide that they will kill an animal, they will stop feeding and watering it because doing so is "wasting resources." She also said that the dogs to be killed at her city's hokenjo are kept in cages on a conveyor belt that each day moves closer to the gas chamber. At one point, Susan had tried to pull some kittens from her city's hokenjo after hearing that they were killing neonate kittens by putting them in the freezer. At the hokenjo she was told that they didn't work with non-profit organizations because one local animal NPO had a poor reputation and the hokenjo couldn't deal with potentially poorly-run organizations. She knew that this same excuse was used at many other hokenjos throughout Japan and she suspected that in Sendai we would be similarly turned away.
When we got to Sendai we stopped at the train station to pick up a couple of Japanese volunteers from LIA who were to help with any adoption paperwork. They told us that another volunteer was meeting us at the shelter with transportation. We made our way to the aigo center which is like the main hokenjo of the city to which animals are transported (this is my rough understanding, at least). The aigo center consisted of a large shelter with probably 100 dogs tied up outside and a separate area that functioned as a petting zoo with a pony, donkey, goat, rabbits, guinea pigs, peacocks, and a variety of other animals.
The only way that I can describe it is dystopian. Here was a petting zoo with decently cared for animals (the donkey looked very lethargic and there were too many rabbits and guinea pigs in the cages, but otherwise they looked better than some American petting zoos I've seen) that people could come to visit literally right beside a facility that kills thousands of dogs and cats and kittens each year.
The other LIA volunteer with transportation hadn't arrived yet and one of the volunteers with us, Kurumi san, called the head of LIA to verify what we were to do. He apparently told her to wait until he talked with the hokenjo workers so that he could make sure we would be given the animals.
In the meantime, we explored the grounds. At the petting zoo we watched as someone from the shelter building brought out some puppies and a cat on a leash and put them into enclosed rings with astroturf on the bottom. We observed all of the various animals and I befriended the goat who was very sweet. We also noted that there was a decent-sized warehouse filled to the brim with dog and cat food.
Dogs tied up outside.
Even more dogs tied up outside. Susan is fairly certain that these are owned dogs displaced by the earthquake/tsunami. The prefectures of Fukushia, Miyagi, and Iwate have all agreed that their hokenjos will not kill any animals with unknown owners or from owners who can't keep their pets with them. However, we suspect that they didn't realize just how many animals this would be and that they are pressuring owners to let them kill their pets to make more space.
After about a half an hour Kurumi san got a call letting us know that we could go inside for the animals. Another woman showed up with a small car to help, but she apparently wasn't the volunteer who was supposed to help transport. She was just there to help with paperwork, too. We entered and had to take off our shoes (as per Japanese custom). We were led into a room with couches by a hokenjo employee. She began talking with Kurumi san and eventually began writing down numbers and descriptions of animals and asked which ones we wanted. Kurumi san explained that we would adopt all of them, but the employee had to make it seem like each of us was adopting as individuals and not as volunteers from NPOs. Kurumi san and the employee divied up the animals and we began filling out paperwork. We were going to be taking all 35 animals.
The shelter employee took two of the LIA volunteers back with her and had them start moving cats into carriers that we had brought. In the meantime, Kurumi san, Susan and I waited in the room continuing to fill out papers. When it came time for us to receive the animals that I was "adopting" the employee told us they were very young kittens and that she needed to go into the back to see if any of them had died yet before she brought them out to us. Susan asked me if I was ready for this and if I really wanted to take this on and I said "yes." The employee brought out the kittens, 5 one-day olds and 5 one-week old neonates. They were all still alive, but just barely. We asked the employee if they had been given anything she said "no." We also asked if there were mother cats. There weren't.
The neonates were very very cold which, if you know anything about newborn kittens you know this will quickly kill them. I ran to the van to get handwarmers that we had luckily brought, syringes, bottles, and kitten milk. We basically started triage-ing right there in the hokenjo. Then they told me that they needed help with the cats.
Here is where I bust out all of my animal wrangling skills. I walked through the hall to help them. The hokenjo employee has apparently put the two LIA volunteers into a muck room with metal boxes containing cats and left them. These volunteers clearly had never dealt with scared/fractious cats and were standing in the middle surrounded by 6 ticked off adult cats who were desperately trying to climb the walls to get out (literally). I ran to go get a towel (having to change shoes, again) and I came back. It took a while, maybe 15 minutes, but I got all of the cats into carriers with only one tiny scratch! All of the cats were soaking wet and smelled kind of like bleach. I would find out why later.
Once the cats were caught and the carriers lined up outside I headed back to the room where Susan was reviving the neonates. They were all still alive, but we needed to get them out fast. I ran outside (changing shoes again, it was a "wonderful" shoe adventure) and moved the van to the back of the shelter where the employee had told me to pull up to collect the dogs. We had absolutely no idea how big the dogs were so I went with the employee to look at them and assess whether or not we could fit them all. She took me around past outdoor kennels absolutely filled with puppies.
She had me put on rain boots and walk through a bleach foot bath and up a slippery metal ramp in a loading dock-type area. I wish I had been able to take pictures, but the employee was with me the whole time in this back area. This seemed to be where they kept the animals destined for the gas chamber. The kennels were the sort of standard sheet metal with bars on top that you frequently see in American shelters with inserts for bowls. Except there were no bowls. In any of the cages. The floor was wet with bleach water that had clearly just been sprayed with the dogs still in the cages. The kennel from which I was taking dogs had 6 dogs in it, none of them from the same place. We later found that one was extremely dog aggressive so I guess plain fear kept them from fighting. An adjacent room had cats in wire mesh cages similarly soaking and meowing pitifully.
Looking at the dogs I knew we didn't have enough room. There were three large Akita mixes, 2 small-medium sized terrier mixes, and one small dog that looked like a damp mop with severe matting who was not moving at all. The employee indicated that two of the dogs would bite so I tentatively stepped inside the kennel with a slip lead and a bag of treats. I easily made friends with the biggest Akita mix dog, one which she had indicated would bite. He eagerly took treats that I tossed to him, but I was still kind of scared of him so I brought out one of the other Akita mixes for our first dog to load up.
When I brought him out we put him into one of the cages already setup in the JEARS van. I explained to Susan that we definitely didn't have enough space so we decided to load up all of the cats into the car of the one LIA volunteer. We asked Kurumi san if the transporter was coming and she said that she thought they had already come. "Come but not taken any animals?" we asked, but Kurumi san had no idea.
Once the cats were loaded up I brought out the two smaller terrier-type dogs. Then I went back in for the mop dog in the corner. When I touched her I could feel every bone in her body. She was the skinniest dog I've ever met and I've met more than my share of emaciated dogs. She was completely non-responsive and felt like a dead weight in my arms.
Once she was in the van, we didn't have any more room for animals despite having 2 dogs left. We asked the hokenjo employee if we could come back and she indicated, no. This is when I had the brilliant idea to make one of the LIA volunteers stay so that we could transport the animals to the Sendai house. I would then come back for the last two dogs and him, the left behind volunteer.
So we started on the road to the Sendai house. We unloaded the cats first. Susan fed one of the litters of kittens that we had picked up and screamed as one kitten, so frantic to get to food, bit another one's foot and wouldn't let go. She had to scruff the kitten and shake it off of the other to get them separated. They clearly hadn't been fed in a long time. I continued unloading the cats and Susan asked me to look at the kitten which had just been bitten. She was a tiny 5-week-old grey kitten, half the size of her littermates and very emaciated with eyes that were slightly too far apart for normal. I picked her up and she was cold to the touch and wet with water and some brown goop. She was lethargic and barely able to hold her head up. I had brought my "medical kit" and so I administered a small bit of fluids and syringe fed her some wet food. She immediately perked up and started purring, but she still looked to be on death's door and began pooping blood.
The LIA volunteers were clearly at a loss as to what to do with all of these half-dead animals, so I handed the kitten to Kurumi san and told her to only watch this kitten. I told her that I thought the kitten could die at any minute and she needed to keep her warm and if she stopped breathing to shake her. It was the only thing I could think to do. The LIA volunteer with the car had to leave so we quickly thanked her and went back to frantically feeding the cats.
As Susan was taking care of the neonates and washing the kittens with the brown goop on them I brought in the dogs. The two terriers stayed in their soft-sided cages. The Akita mix had to go in the bathroom to free up space for the other Akita mixes. He seemed quite content, though, when I laid down food and water.
Then I brought in the mop dog who wasn't moving at all. I held her and she was barely breathing. I yelled to Susan that I thought this dog was dying and we needed to get her to a vet. She called various JEARS volunteers and asked them to call around to see if there were any vets who could take us. I tried to give the dog some food, but she wouldn't take it and wouldn't even acknowledge that it was there. I then gave her a big slug of fluids and she started to show interest in the food. In fact she scarfed it down and then proceeded to try to drunkenly stagger around looking for more. She could barely stand, but she was moving! Clearly, the only reason this dog was in such bad shape was because she hadn't been given any water at hokenjo. It was horrific.
Once it seemed like none of the animals were on the verge of dying (2 hours later) I returned to the hokenjo and loaded up the big bite-y Akita mix and the other old one. I had to wake up the LIA volunteer from a bench he was napping on and we headed back to the Sendai house.
We couldn't stay in the Sendai house. To make this run to Sendai, we had had to leave Selena behind to take care of all of the dogs in Inawashiro and she had had to leave midday for Tokyo. Also, back in Inawashiro, one of our dogs, Ryu, had gotten loose and Yoshikawa san was helping to look for him. In addition to that, we had been forced to cancel a pick up in Kawamata that Sega san had arranged when it became clear that this hokenjo rescue would take all day. Everything felt like it was caving in. We decided we had to rent a big van to take all of the animals back to Inawashiro and there was no time to go to the vet's office. Luckily, a Hiace was available so we went to pick it up and piled animals in. But it still wasn't enough space! We somehow convinced Kurumi san and the other volunteer to help us transport using the JEARS van and then we would pay for them to take the train back to Sendai.
So at about 7 pm, we got onto the road back to Inawashiro. As we were driving, Susan received a call from LIA asking if the head of the group could come to the Sendai house to see all of the animals, not to take any mind you, just to see them (we suspect they wanted a photo op so that they could take credit for this rescue despite doing literally nothing other than alert us and send volunteers with little animal handling experience, who we later found out had never even volunteered for LIA before, to fill out paperwork). Susan was absolutely livid that they hadn't helped out and told them that she couldn't meet with the leader and that she was very ticked off at how everything had turned out. She, understandably, never wanted to work with them again. We later found out that LIA has done this to many rescue groups and they are anti-spay/neuter (WHAT?!?!).
In Inawashiro we still had to take care of all of the animals previously in our care (20 dogs and 2 cats) and newly in our care (35 dogs, cats, and kittens). Luckily, Miho san had gone to pick up Ryu who had been found by an elderly couple. It was a couple of hours of frantically assembling cages, nursing neonates, and feeding. It was too late for the LIA volunteers to take a train back so they had to spend the night, but they didn't help with any of the animal care! It was so frustrating. Miho stayed with us and helped out immensely with the neonate feedings which had to take place every few hours during the night. Right before I went to sleep at approximately 4 am I noticed that the tiny grey kitten was lethargic in the corner of her cage. I picked her up and wrapped her in a towel, fed her, and placed her right beside my pillow and I fell asleep as she purred.