A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Animals in Japan Face Gangsters and Radiation

Elizabeth Oliver was checking out a motel for sale just outside the evacuation zone in Japan … very inexpensive … could be just right for an animal shelter.

The founder of Animal Refuge Kansai (ARK) wanted a place that could be used by all the rescue groups operating around the radiation zone, and by international groups wanting to help, too. The motel was the front runner … until it turned out to be owned and operated by gangsters.

Just another challenge in the work of animal rescue in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Oliver is quick to note that while gangsters and looters are an inevitable part of the landscape, far more people are doing all they can to help, including offering up their own homes and backyards to be used as animal refuges. “A great dog lover has offered her spacious garden to set up a rescue facility,” she said. “She has offered space for ten dogs and I may go down there myself to see them settled in.”

Offers like these are very helpful, but they’re mainly a long way from the radiation zone, and ARK still needs a large, well-equipped rescue shelter.

That’s because the whole animal rescue operation in Japan has shifted into a new phase. It’s no longer simply about rescuing animals from the natural disaster – earthquake and tsunami; it’s now about the manmade disaster – the looming, long-term catastrophe that’s unfolding around the nuclear power plants.

From Chernobyl to Fukushima

Damage at Fukushima reactor Number Three

This week, as new and increasingly worrying reports were coming from nuclear plants at Fukushima, the world was also marking the 25th anniversary of the disaster at Chernobyl, where an explosion spewed radioactive dust and ash over 77,000 square miles of Ukraine.

After the explosion at Chernobyl, radioactive deposits landed as far away as Ireland. To this day, the region is closed, and animals who live there are still being born deformed.

“People are now predicting one year or two before it is safe to go back, and many places will be uninhabitable forever.”

While there’s been no explosion at Fukushima, what’s happening is no less alarming: a slow-motion catastrophe. This week, Japan’s main broadcasting service, NHK, reported that the level of water contamination at two of the reactors now poses serious risks. At another, just over the last 10 days, radioactive cesium levels have gone up 25-fold.

How bad is the situation in Japan, and what will be the effects for years to come? The answer is, we simply don’t know. (For a truly radical opinion, check out this in the Hawaii News Daily.)

And while, on the one hand, the government tried to allay anxieties, it simultaneously expanded the danger zone and started evacuating more people.

Towns are being evacuated one by one. On Monday, Iidate Mura announced that its people will be evacuated within a month. They added that people going to official evacuation shelters will not be allowed to take pets with them.

“There are 700 ‘registered’ dogs there,” Oliver said. “So we can double that to get the real number.”

People who had already left their homes but were expecting to return in a few days are being allowed to go back briefly – just one member of each household, wearing protective gear, and for five hours each, to collect some belongings. They will also be prohibited from bringing out pets or other animals.

“It’s really a blow to all animals still remaining in the zone,” said Oliver. “Those who break the law will be faced with $1,000 fine and possibly 30 days imprisonment.”

Meanwhile, the military has begun moving in to kill animals who appeared to be suffering.

In just one district, Odaka, the first “culls” were estimated to include more than a quarter of a million animals. And overall, more than half a million farm animals in the region are believed to have died.

Small teams of animal rescuers are still trying to help animals, mainly companion animals, who were abandoned as people fled. But they are now being denied access to the evacuation zone.

All in all, caring for animals rescued from the devastation and from the ghost towns has entered a new phase, which is why ARK is looking to set up an official rescue center.

“Our problem now is space,” said Oliver. “With shelters and refuges all full to capacity, we would like for this facility to become a place for all organizations around the world that would like to help in this effort to work together to rescue as many animals from this disaster as possible.”

ARK is welcoming qualified people from near and far to be part of the effort. “If you would like to join in this group please let us know,” she said.

ARK has also launched a petition, and is asking people around the world to help put pressure on the government to allow people to take their companion animals with them when they leave the evacuation zone.

The long term

Along with many experts, Oliver disputes official predictions that it will be safe for evacuees to go back home in nine months. “People are now predicting one year or two before it is safe to go back, and many places will be uninhabitable forever,” she said.

Overall, for humans and other animals, the situation is not getting better; it’s getting worse, and no one really knows where it’s all headed. While humans can be evacuated, there’s no way of known the effects, short-term or long-term, of other animals absorbing radioactive materials.

The groundwater around Fukushima and the sediments in the ocean nearby will likely remain contaminated for decades to come, and this will affect fish and other marine animals throughout the entire food chain.

While we know basically what happens and what’s needed when a natural event like an earthquake and tsunami takes place, all bets are off when we add a manmade danger, like a group of nuclear reactors, into the mix.

And while nature can bounce back relatively quickly from its own upheavals, the animals have virtually no way of coping with manmade disasters. Nor will any number of evacuations protect us from the ripple effects of that.

What do you say? There are 104 nuclear power plants in the United States, many in coastal areas. Would you be prepared to shut them down and pay more for gas and power? Let us know in a comment below or on Facebook.

What you can do: ARK is urging you to send this petition to the Japanese government, asking that pets be allowed to evacuate the radiation zone with their people. Download the petition here. ARK asks that you print it out and send it by mail. (The addresses are on the petition.)

You can donate on the same page. Paypal will ask you to enter your donation in yen. Current exchange rate is about 80 yen to the dollar. So for a $10 donation, enter 800 yen. For $50, 4,000 yen. (Don’t worry, you’ll see a confirmation in dollars!)