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June 1, 2011

Animals in Japan: Still in Need

Humane Society International

  • An HSI responder comforts a dog during our time on the ground in Japan. Iwane Myachi

  • Decontamination. Iwane Myachi

  • Ad for a lost dog. Iwane Myachi

  • Doing a medical assessment. Iwane Myachi

  • ID tags help get pets safely back home. Iwane Myachi

  • Checking radiation levels. Iwane Myachi

  • Hoping to be reunited with her family. Iwane Myachi

by Bernard Unti

A Japanese animal organization recently characterized as poor the Japanese government’s facilitation of animal rescue from the evacuation area in Japan. Like many stakeholders interested in helping these animals, HSI has also been unhappy with the relatively ineffectual response by Japanese authorities.

Recognizing that the initial emphasis in such situations will always be on aiding the human victims, as in the Katrina disaster, there can be no question that many people forced to evacuate from the Fukushima exclusion zone were and still are very distressed by not knowing the fate of their companion animals.

Support our disaster response efforts

In light of prior experience, the world had reason to expect that Japanese officials would take advantage of the resources available through Japanese animal organizations and their international supporters to mount a more vigorous animal rescue response once the situation for human evacuees had stabilized.

For example, it would have been helpful to establish and publicize a hotline number that disaster victims could have called to report companion animals left behind. There could have been appropriate follow-up by volunteers operating under the direction of the authorities to help rescue animals (with the support and direction of evacuees). We should have seen the establishment of a shelter outside the exclusion zone where rescued pets could have been held and decontaminated following rescue. Owners could then have come and claimed their pets after they found a new place to live.

Greater efforts needed

During a five-day window, some weeks ago, the Japanese Ministry of Environment and the Fukushima prefectural government carried out the rescue of a total of 29 dogs and cats and 28 horses, all roaming freely in the streets.

The teams did not rescue suffering pets inside homes or those on leashes attached to homes, in order to avoid trespassing on private property (there is considerable reluctance in Japan to interfere with the property of others). They also didn’t allow local rescue groups to assist in picking up animals in the area. Homeowners were allowed a temporary return to their homes but only 18 dogs/cats were rescued from a total of 99 households that participated. It appears that some homeowners were left confused about whether or not they actually had permission to take their animals with them, so few did so.

On May 12, the Japanese government announced that farm animals within the evacuation area should be euthanized, with permission from their owners. Of the 674,000 or more farm animals in the area before the disaster, it is believed that only 1,000 are alive today.

Humane Society International, together with several other international and local animal organizations, has been urging the Japan government in every way possible to allow volunteer assistance in reaching the animals remaining in the evacuation zone. We will continue to address this issue through all possible channels to help the animals still in need in Japan.

Planning ahead

At the same time, HSI is also focusing our efforts on developing a program to determine how rescue and recovery of companion and farm animals might be enhanced in the future, and a strategy for implementing an improved approach.

In addition to our future grant-making activity in support of animal welfare in Japan, HSI is considering organizing a major conference on disaster preparedness and response in Japan, as well as developing several small-scale presentations on the same topic. The conference would focus on the unique challenges of the Japanese disaster, such as the perils and risks associated with radiation release from nuclear reactors, emergency sheltering, pet-friendly policies at human shelters, safety protocols for handling animals, and the development and management of feeding stations and programs for roaming strays.

Help ensure we can be there for animals affected by disaster.

Bernard Unti, Ph.D, is senior policy advisor and special assistant to the CEO/president of The Humane Society of the United States.