By Michael Mountain
When Isabella Gallaon-Aoki and her two colleagues loaded up her Toyota wagon with dog carriers, cat carriers and as much pet food and supplies as they could fit in the car, they became the first animal rescue team to head into the devastation of Sendai, a coastal city in northern Japan that was most ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami.
Aoki runs the Animal Garden Niigata, a pet boarding hotel in north-western Japan that doubles as a sanctuary and supports her adoption work. On her first expedition to Sendai, roughly 200 miles away, she was joined by Ashley Fruno, who had flown in from the Philippines, where she represents the animal rights group PETA, and by Adrien Zap of World Vets International.
The first challenge was simply getting into Sendai. Initially, only military and other government people were allowed. But once they managed to get through, the team got a heartfelt welcome from the people there.
“I know in situations like this you sometimes hear things like ‘Why are you helping animals when there are so many people who need help?’ ” Aoki said. “But that’s not how we’ve been greeted wherever we’ve gone. People are so grateful to see us when we tell them we’ve come to help the animals.”
Sadly, though, Aoki’s group has seen few animals on their two visits to Sendai so far. “We saw human bodies being pulled out wreckage,” she said. “We’ve seen people with hungry pets, and we’ve given them bags of food. But we haven’t seen animals roaming or chained up. Most of them were obviously just swept away when the tsunami came in.”
This relief recipient stayed in her house for three days because she did not want to abandon her dog after the tsunami devastated areas of Japan
People whose pets were still with them could be seen clinging to them. It was a scene reminiscent of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where pets were often all that many people had left. Once again, loved ones were missing or had died, and homes, belongings and livelihoods were all gone. In the face of such catastrophe, nothing in the world would separate people from their pets, even if, as in the wake of Katrina, it meant not being able to get into one of the evacuation shelters.
A grassroots effort
The grassroots efforts of people like Aoki quickly became the backbone of animal and rescue and relief. Animal Garden Niigata teamed up with the Japan Cat Network and HEART-Tokushima, which normally focus on spay/neuter programs for stray animals, to form the Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue & Support (JEARS). Their Facebook page quickly became the information center for news and other information from the disaster area.
Along with Animal Refuge Kansai, which is taking in hundreds of animals from people who are evacuating the country, this handful of dedicated people is leading the relief effort.
“We haven’t really heard much from the Japan SPCA or the Japan Animal Welfare Society,” said Aoki, referring to the two best-known national organizations, which are headquartered in Tokyo and work mainly with the government.
And while the coalition has welcomed the help of volunteers from abroad, like Zap and Fruno, they’re not actively calling for people to come in from other countries. “We need a network of local people on the ground,” Aoki said.
For the most part, foreign organizations have been holding back from sending in teams. “We have three teams, with four people in each, who are ready to go to the region” said Dr. Cathy King, the founder and CEO of World Vets. “But we’re on hold right now. With the latest news of the radiation leaks at the nuclear power stations, we have to be careful. We can’t send our volunteer veterinarians into that kind of danger.” Meanwhile, World Vets has been sending supplies to a veterinarian in Sendai.
The main need: continuing donations
What the local rescue groups need most of all from the outside is a continuing flow of donations.
“This is going to be a long-term effort,” Aoki said. “We’ll be here supporting people and their pets for a long time to come, getting food to them, and saving other animals wherever we come across them. We need to be able to get food and water and veterinary supplies to those in need. And that’s going to be the case for the foreseeable future.”
On the morning of March 19th, Aoki was loading up the wagon to head out to Iwate, north of Sendai. “We’ve heard about a rescue group there that’s in trouble. It’s called the Iwate Life Association, but I don’t know much about them, so we’ll be taking food and supplies and seeing how else we can help.”
Simply getting to Iwate was going to be a challenge. “The coast road is out,” Aoki said, “so we have to go up and around. And that means taking extra gas in cans.”
She had one final appeal before setting out on this next mission. “We’ve had messages offering to take rescued and abandoned animals out of Japan. But our goal is to reunite lost pets with their people. For some people, their pet may be all they have left.
“So please thank everyone for their willingness to adopt a needy animal,” she said. “But most of all, please continue to support our efforts to rescue and reunite!”
Note: There are continuing updates on the Facebook page of the Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue & Support coalition.
HOW TO HELP
Animal Refuge Kansai (ARK)
Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue & Support (JEARS)
Donate to Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support
Japan Cat Network
Animal Garden Niigata
Crisis Response for Japan
Japanese Red Cross
Japan Animal Trust