We were invited to enter the 20 km exclusion zone on July 16th and 17th by the Fukushima Veterinary Association (VAFFA) along with several other animal rescue and welfare groups. This was, obviously, an opportunity that we couldn't say "no" to even though we were still in the midst of the panleukopenia outbreak. Animal rescue groups haven't been able to enter the 20 km zone since the end of April when the Japanese government made it illegal to enter the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. At that time there were still tens of thousands of animals in farms, in homes, and in the streets. We knew that individuals were sneaking into the 20 km zone to feed and rescue animals, but we had no idea if we would find many animals still alive 3 months later.
Luckily, it turned out that we were allowed to take pictures inside the 20 km as long as we didn't post them publicly until allowed to do so. They've never said we could do so, but it's been months and we haven't been let back in to the 20 km so I'm posting them, meh!
Our group was designated to work in Futaba, a small town where 90% of the houses had been destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. Luckily, reports stated that the radiation was low in Futaba so we didn't have to wear the Tyvek suits. Very fortunate considering it was around 85 degrees that day.
Tyvek suits make me sweat profusely. You can't tell but I'm drenched in this picture courtesy of Selena Hoy.
The drive in was uneventful. We only saw one cow that had been set free. She looked ok except she was covered in flies. We did have to pass through an absolutely terrifying tunnel. The lights were out so it was pitch black and felt like the longest tunnel I've ever been in.
We first stopped when I saw a brown cat. We put down some food because I wasn't entirely sure we would be able to catch it since it didn't seem super interested in wet food. Nearby was a pet store and we inspected there. All of the cages had been opened that we could see, but we weren't allowed to go inside per VAFFA.
On the way back into town to look at more properties with left behind pets we saw a dog across a field. We tried to catch her but she was wary of us and stayed far away. We set dog traps at both of the houses with dogs.
After setting the dog traps I caught a cat in a trap who was skinny, but otherwise healthy. She was sitting by the side of the road and dove into a gutter when we pulled up. I put the trap in the gutter and within 5 minutes we had caught her. The vets let me take charge of setting the trap because they didn't have much experience catching animals. It's nice when people acknowledge that I'm way better than them (jk!).
It was the end of our alloted rescue time so we went to Minami Soma, another coastal city near the 20 km zone. We were screened for radiation by the nuclear division along with the cat in the trap who didn't care one bit what happened as long as we kept feeding her. We were all normal according to the geiger counters!
After the screening we went (secretly) back into the 20 km with the veterinarians. We returned to the gas station and put down a cat trap. We also checked the dog traps (no one was inside). While we were at one house, we found puppies. We pulled out 5 puppies from underneath the house. They were all skinny and had very pale gums. I suggested that we go ahead and deworm them, but the vets said that we didn't know that they had parasites (that kind of annoyed me, you can pretty much assume that puppies who have lived outdoors their entire lives have parasites and deworming them isn't detrimental even if they don't have them). We couldn't catch the female dog, though, but we figured she was the mom.
Puppies!!! Later name Lily, Emi, Penny, Gus, and Milo.
We went back to the Kawauchi gym to meet up with the other rescue groups and vets. Two volunteers and the senior vet departed from us at Kawauchi and the rest of us went to Koriyama to a Fukushima shelter. The government-run shelters in Fukushima that were created to deal with the disaster-affected animals are notoriously terrible. Dogs kept in cramped cages, cats constantly sick, etc. This shelter, however, is run by a private group and is quite small (and clean and well-kept) compared to the others.
Still, we were very concerned that medical issues would go unaddressed in the shelter. We saw several lactating female dogs without puppies meaning that inexperienced rescue groups had picked them up not knowing that the puppies would potentially die without their mothers. One dog right across from the puppies I suspected had scabies. We talked with Natsuhori sensei, the veterinarian in charge of the whole operation. He said that they weren't going to register the puppies as found pets since the owners almost certainly didn't want them. We could take them the next day!!!
On Sunday July 17th we had to get to Kawauchi super early because Natsuhori sensei wanted groups to leave earlier in the day when it would be less hot so that we could find more animals. We left around 7 am on Sunday. Natsuhori had told us that we had to go to Minami Soma between 12 and 1 or we wouldn't be allowed back into the zone. The vets initially wanted to have the vans travel together like the previous day, but I explained that it would be better to split up and have one van check the traps we left and one van do food drops. So we had two volunteers and the young vet in one car doing food drops and the senior vet, and I in the trap checking van.
We split up straight away and our van went a different direction than we had gone previously to get to Futaba. We went through the town of Ono where we found a big group of dogs near the train station. They definitely had started a pack mentality and were quite fearful of us. We couldn't get anywhere near them, though we did do a low speed chase through the streets after one dog who seemed most interested in us with me hanging out the back of the van with a slip lead (another instance where I wish there was a picture of me doing something ridiculous).
He has since been named Chaka Khan and is now living at the Japan Cat Network Shelter. More pictures can be seen of him here courtesy of Carol Kosloski.
In Futaba, both of the dog traps that we had placed had had the food eaten out of them, but no dogs caught! The traps don't work very well. We also didn't catch a cat at the house with the puppies and mother dog. However, I was able to hand catch the mother dog. She was underneath a shed on the property and I heard her barking. I slowly fed her wet food moving it farther and farther away from the shed until her head was far enough out for me to get a slip lead on her. The vet seemed very impressed and the dog was clearly a sweet dog, just super fearful.
Here she is in the background with her puppies lined up adorably. She has since been named Sachi and is being adopted this weekend as we haven't found her original owners.
We finished looking at the various houses where animals had been reported to have been left behind, but again found none. Susan called to say that they had caught a different cat in the trap left overnight at the gas station. They also caught the cat we had seen the day before when Susan re-set the trap.
The skinnier cat has been named Luba and he is at the Japan Cat Network Shelter. He had hair loss and was emaciated when we picked him up in the 20 km and neither of these issues has resolved despite multiple vet clinic visits. We are not sure if this is due to the radiation or something else. More pictures can be found here courtesy of Carol Kosloski.
The second cat caught by Susan et. al. He is now named Rufus and has changed from a standoffish guy to a sweetheart during his time at Japan Cat Network. His left eye was damaged long before we found him and scar tissue built up over his cornea leading to the bluish color. More pictures here, again, courtesy of Carol Kosloski.
Susan's van continued doing food drops and mine headed into Namie to look for an animal that a local had reported to have seen. We passed Fran and Kambe sensei on the way. They were looking for a golden retriever which they never found, unfortunately. We also didn't find the reported animal, but did many food drops for hungry cats. At one location (the Namie Boat, it's a restaurant with a big boat beside it...creative naming!) I had the driver stop because I saw a cat. The cat I saw ran away immediately when I got out of the van, but I heard meowing across the way and a silver female came trotting right up to me and begged to be picked up and fed. She was soooo sweet. I picked her up and put her in a carrier and she talked to me all the way to our radiation check point in Minami Soma.
She's since been named Vega at Japan Cat Network and more pictures of her can be found here, courtesy of Carol Kosloski.
Debris pile from the cleanup of the tsunami damage. In some places the pile was as high as a 3 story building.
At the radiation screening center in Minami Soma we learned that the animals picked up that day were going to the first Fukushima shelter. This was the one which Susan had seen pictures of months previously and it was really horrendous. The vets for this mission had even said that the conditions were subpar but that it was being worked on. Susan managed to convince our vets to get Natsuhori sensei to let us take the cats so that they wouldn't have to go to the first Fukushima shelter. I'm not sure how it all happened (maybe they all liked us, maybe they wanted Susan to shut up, hah!), but we were allowed to take all of the cats and keep the mother dog since she was nursing the puppies. However, we were told that we absolutely couldn't tell any of the other groups who had participated in rescue that weekend or anyone at the Fukushima shelter that we were taking them because no other groups were allowed to take animals. We (and our rescued animals) got so lucky.
We still wanted to go to the Fukushima shelter to see the conditions, so we followed Fran and Kambe sensei. We parked our van far away so that no one would see the 4 cats and dog we had inside and left the air running. The shelter was not as bad as it was previously (per Susan), so they were indeed working on it. However, there were hundreds of animals and some of the dogs were in cages so small they couldn't stand up and turn around. They all seemed very hungry and many had medical issues that I noted that were clearly not being addressed (many eye and skin problems).
Afterwards, Susan and I drove to Koriyama shelter to pick up the puppies. Here there was one man and a woman there taking care of the animals. All of the animals seemed really content with none of them making a peep (as opposed to the Fukushima City shelter where the roar of dogs barking was overwhelming). The man was apparently in charge and when we told him we were taking the pups he said he had to call his superior, but the call was quick and he confirmed that we could take them. We weren't able to take the cat we had brought in the day before because we'd never gotten official confirmation that we could take her, but we checked in on her and she was in a nice big cage by herself with multiple stories and she seemed quite content.
So then we came back to Inawashiro and unloaded the mom and puppies. The cats had to stay in the car because of the panleukopenia, but the next day Susan and I drove them to Japan Cat Network in Shiga (more on that in my next post).
Overall, I considered it a positive experience. I'm sure each team of rescuers had different veterinarians with different values, but the vets on our team basically let us do what we felt was appropriate in terms of stopping for every animal we saw to at least drop food. They helped us to remove the animals and prevent them from having to stay at the Fukushima City shelter. They let us set the traps and catch the animals because they recognized that we had the experience. I think there was a lot of mutual respect between us and this helped us to get what we wanted from Natsuhori sensei. They even bent the rules to allow for more rescue time. While it's definitely true that the Fukushima City shelter is in horrible shape, it was improving when we visited and the vets were working with the government on this. Regardless, many animals (52 was the official count, though this may not have included the ones that we took with us) were saved from the exclusion zone that weekend and a lot are resting comfortably at the Koriyama shelter while some are languishing in the Fukushima City shelter. Luckily, none of the languishing ones were "ours."
Oh also the radiation spiked to 40 microsieverts/hr at its highest in Ono. That was the highest I've ever see it