13 Janvier 2016
January 13, 2016
By MAKOTO TAKADA/ Staff Writer
MIHARU, Fukushima Prefecture--With the onset of another freezing winter, the head of a private group founded in this town to rescue cats left behind when residents evacuated from the nuclear accident worries about their continued survival.
“Surviving the winter will be tough for cats since the animals don't endure the cold weather very well,” said Akira Honda, who operates the Nyander Guard.
“We want to save all the lives left behind in the difficult-to-return zone and elsewhere,” he said, referring to the off-limits area around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
In December, Fukushima prefectural officials closed a shelter for pets abandoned by their owners, concluding that nearly five years after the nuclear disaster, it is highly unlikely that any remain in the restricted area.
However, efforts are still ongoing by private groups to retrieve cats left by their evacuating owners.
In one such "rescue mission," Takemi Shirota, a staff member with the Nyander Guard, traveled to Okuma, which co-hosts the plant and is situated in the "difficult-to-return" zone, in November.
The zone is where annual radiation exposure levels exceeded 50 millisieverts as of the end of March 2012, well beyond the permitted additional exposure of 1 millisievert a year for the public.
Evacuees from the zone are allowed visits to their homes if they obtain a permit from the central government and local authorities.
Shirota's search in the difficult-to-return zone was arranged to coincide with special day trips by displaced residents.
When she went to check on cages with food placed the day before to capture cats, a calico feline was inside one.
The calico, still wearing a collar, looked shabby after years of roaming in the wild.
When Shirota, 39, reached to pick up the animal, it did not resist.
“This cat must have had an owner before the accident,” she said.
The Nyander Guard is trying to find the cat's owner through its website.
The group conducts a search in accordance with a request from a pet owner.
To assist in its search, it uses surveillance cameras set up in specific sections in the zone after gaining permission from affected landowners and home owners.
Surveillance footage showed that the feline, which the Nyander Guard staff calls Miko, had roamed for about 2 kilometers over rough terrain since it was first spotted.
The feline is believed to be one of many pets that their owners could not take with them as they fled soon after the triple meltdown unfolded at the nuclear complex on March 11, 2011, following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
About 24,000 people from the difficult-to-return zone remain displaced, and it is still uncertain as to when they can return to resume their normal lives.
Some displaced residents regret that they did not take their pets with them, regardless of the circumstances.
A middle-aged woman from Tomioka, a town next to Okuma, gave up on taking her cat with her when she fled to Koriyama, also in the prefecture.
The reason was that keeping her cat in a shelter would have been virtually impossible, with a large number of evacuees crowded into a limited space.
Each time she returned to her home on a temporary visit, the feline was there waiting to be fed.
But the cat later disappeared.
After seeing a photo of a feline resembling hers at the Nyander Guard’s website, the woman went to the cat shelter operated by the group to check it out.
The animal was not hers, after all.
“I should have evacuated with my cat, no matter what,” the tearful woman told the staff.
Honda, the president of an automotive parts manufacturer, moved to Fukushima Prefecture from Nagoya, where his company is based, to launch efforts to rescue animals in April 2011.
In December the same year, Honda purchased a rental house in Miharu to turn it into a shelter for cats.
Apart from Honda and Shirota, four other staff members are involved in the Nyander Guard.
Honda, 52, shuttles between Nagoya and Miharu to juggle his business and rescue operations.
The group has captured about 400 cats so far and tries to track down their owners or find them new homes.
About 60 cats from the difficult-to-return zone are still under its care today, most are believed to have been born after the nuclear disaster.
Honda said it costs more than 2 million yen ($17,000) a month to finance their activities, including utilities, feed and personnel costs.
He covers the difference out of his own pocket because donations from organizations and individuals, as well as subsidies from the prefectural government to fund part of the manpower costs, are not enough.
The Nyander Guard is not the only group leading rescue efforts.
Private groups and individuals in and outside the prefecture have engaged in efforts to retrieve dogs and cats in the stricken area at their own expenses.
The Fukushima prefectural government, too, launched a search for pets in the “no-entry” zone, a radius of 20 kilometers from the Fukushima plant, a month after the nuclear accident occurred.
The number of dogs and cats that were captured and kept at a shelter under this initiative numbered 463 and 545, respectively, over the past four years and eight months, according to prefectural officials.
Of these, about 30 percent of the animals were returned to their owners. New homes were found for about 60 percent. The remainder died while in the shelter.
Heeding requests by many evacuees, the central government revised the Basic Disaster Management Plan in December 2011, incorporating a clause calling for reserving space for pets at evacuation centers.
Still, many pets will likely be left behind when residents are forced hurriedly to evacuate, as was demonstrated when torrential downpours flooded large areas in the Kanto and Tohoku regions last September.
“People should be ready with a contingency plan before an emergency hits,” said Shirota, who serves as the chief of the Nyander Guard’s shelter.