On 11 March 2011, an earthquake and a tsunami devastated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, forcing an evacuation of the entire area due to high volumes of radiation.
After several extensions, the evacuation zone today covers 2400 sq km and includes 11 towns.
More than 300,000 people were evacuated and thousands of animals were left behind to die.
Initially, the evacuation was supposed to be only temporary, so pets and stock were left with enough food and water for a few days. However, the situation became even worse after further explosions occurred in the plant and the evacuation became permanent.
Shelters in Fukushima didn’t allowed pets, but many people refused to leave their beloved animals and kept them in their cars. Others travelled to shelters in nearby cities were they could be with them.
During the first month of the evacuation, several animal welfare organizations organized feeding and rescue trips. But in April, the government prohibited anyone from entering the exclusion zone without a permit.
During the first few months, families were able to return to their homes with a special permission at least once. The government opened an animal shelter to care for the pets rescued in those trips. By August, the shelter was completely overcrowded. The government proposed a fostering scheme, but pet owners didn’t trust it and wanted their pets to remain in the shelter.
In the meantime, a number of people were sneaking into the zone to feed all the unrescued pets. They managed to save over 1500 cats and dogs during the first 6 months.
In December 2011, the government gave in to people’s pleas and allowed 16 animal welfare groups to enter the zone from 7 till 27 December to rescue as many surviving animals as they could before the hard temperatures of winter began to settle.
However, the rescue mission was cut short after disturbing images started appearing on television and filling the web. Authorities even arrested 2 rescuers, Hiroshi and Leo Hoshi for not obeying orders. The Hoshi family alone rescued at their own expense over 200 animals. You can sign a petition to free them by clicking here.
Teacher Mieko Yoshida, who lost 4 of her 12 cats in the chaos after the natural and nuclear disaster, started a campaign asking the government to let people rescue the remaining living pets.
“Give me back my family,” could be read in her placard.
Yoshida compiled a list of about 80 houses where pets had been left alone and she sneaked into these to feed them and rescue them whenever she could.
During the first months, a group of about 10 farmers was able to get a special permit and used to make regular trips to feed their cattle.
“I left like everyone else after 11 March,” said 69-year-old Yukio Yamamoto. “I couldn’t stop worrying about my cows, so I started coming back in every other day to feed them.”
In May 2011, the then prime minister, Naoto Kan, ordered the killing of livestock by lethal injection after radiation made them commercially worthless.
And then there’s Keigo Sakamoto, a 58-year-old man who has never left the area and made taking care of abandoned animals his mission in life.
After the evacuation, Sakamoto drove across empty towns and collected all the animals he could.
Today, Sakamoto takes care of more than 500 animals, including dogs, cats, goats, chickens, ducks and rabbits.
“There are no neighbors,” says Sakamoto. “I’m the only one here but I’m here to stay.”
Sakamoto is able to survive thanks to charities and donations.
“These animals here are my life, my family.”
In a recent interview with Reuters, Sakamoto said: “After the disaster, they hauled in huge concrete blocks to shut off this road. They could have stopped a tank.
“I couldn’t get water or food for me and the animals. I felt like they were telling us to just go and die.”
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