Not without my animals: March 11 a disaster for pets, too

Not without my animals: March 11 a disaster for pets, too

Rescue volunteers band together to reunite cats, dogs and more with worried owners

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but it really is true that there are more pets than children in Japan. Recent figures show 23 million cats and dogs outnumbering kids under 16 by some six million.

That’s one reason why both the media and many ordinary people have been following the fate of animals affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Amid the human tragedy, a group of organizations is stepping in to help four-legged victims too.

JEARS“Wherever there are people, there are pets,” says David Wybenga of Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS), a confederation of three animal welfare organizations that banded together in the aftermath of the disaster. “We just want to give them a hand.”

JEARS despatched three teams to the worst-affected areas almost immediately, not knowing what they would find, but wanting to assist in any way they could.

Social media for pets

In the first week after the tsunami, the majority of the work focused on getting supplies to pet owners unable to provide for them because of the understandable priority placed on feeding people first. JEARS also set up a Facebook page where people could put out a call for help in reuniting with their missing animals.

At one evacuation center in Miyagi, the JEARS team met Shane, an affable Akita, and his owner, named Mr. Kamata.

After the tsunami warning, Kamata first alerted his neighbors to the danger, but as he headed home to get Shane, he found his way blocked by a torrent of water.

He thought he had lost his friend forever, but some hours later at the evacuation center, people reported a bedraggled dog wandering around outside. Somehow, Shane had found his way to his owner by swimming through the debris-filled water.

He was exhausted and had suffered minor injuries, but was otherwise unharmed. JEARS was able to tend to his scratches and provide some antibiotics to guard against infection.

Shane and Kamata reunited after the tsunami.Shane and Kamata reunited after the tsunami.

Radiation alert

At other times, JEARS did the reuniting. One anonymous woman from Fukushima left her dog called Non behind when she was evacuated, thinking she would only be away for one day. But, when the natural disaster turned to a radiation scare, she wasn’t able to get back home.

Soon after, she found a flyer from Animal Friends Niigata, one of the JEARS members, and gave them a call.

Navigating collapsed buildings and damaged roads, a team was finally able to reach the woman’s house, where they could hear Non frantically barking inside, having been trapped there for 10 days.

When the team called the owner to give her the good news, she could hardly believe Non had made it and peppered the team with questions about the color of his collar and distinguishing marks to be sure it was him.

Sea rescue

JEARS also took in a Welsh Corgi that had been stranded on a section of floating roof for three days. He had been brought to an evacuation center, but the trauma and stress had made him snap at people.

“I’ve never seen an expression like that on a dog’s face,” said the JEARS volunteer who picked him up. They were able to take him back to their shelter, where some food and care has revealed a more friendly side.

About a week after the disaster, scared animals that had been in hiding began to come out in search of food and JEARS started finding more strays.

As they ventured into the evacuation zone in Fukushima, they picked up a dog that had collapsed by the side of the road, too weakened to stand.

She was soon followed by several more in varying states of starvation, exhaustion and injury. All of them were given first aid and food, and brought back to shelters.

More than a month after March 11, the teams are still busy ferrying supplies and taking in animals, but with locating owners, arranging foster homes, and eventual adoptions still ahead, their work is far from done.

Says Wybenga, “For us, this is going to continue for a very long time.”

The JEARS team loads up a van to head into the disaster area.The JEARS team loads up a van to head into the disaster area.