Veterinarian works to save surviving animals in Fukushima

A long row of cows is crowded at a gate, their heads straining through the metal as if desperately reaching for food. All of them are dead. For Dr. Shigeki Imamoto, a veterinarian who travels to Fukushima Prefecture to save animals in communities devastated by last year’s disaster, this was not an uncommon sight.

In the wake of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, people from all over the world made donations to support the victims. But in addition to human residents, hundreds of thousands of animals also saw their homes and lives devastated, and help for them has not been as forthcoming.

ON A MISSION — On Feb. 10, Dr. Shigeki Imamoto spoke at the JCCCNC of his efforts to save the animals in Fukushima’s exclusion zone. photo courtesy of JCCCNC/NJERF

On Feb. 10, Imamoto, the director of the Shinjo Animal Hospital in Nara Prefecture, presented a lecture at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) in San Francisco’s Japantown. His talk, co-sponsored by the JCCCNC, focused on his experiences saving animals in the “no-go” radiation exclusion zone.

“I am working under the assumption that all lives are equal,” Imamoto said. “How is the life of an animal and a human different? People and animals live together, in the same environment. Taking care of animals is another responsibility for humans.”

When Imamoto heard that the Japanese government was establishing a “no-go” radiation exclusion zone at a 20-kilometer (12.4 -mile) radius around the nuclear power plant starting on April 22, he decided to enter before then to see if he could do anything for the animals that had been left behind.

Before entering the area on April 15, he spoke with government officials. Agriculture was a main industry in the area, meaning that thousands of pigs, chickens and cattle were left behind.

“I was told that if livestock can’t live for one month without having people feed them, they had likely died of starvation,” Imamoto said.

While Imamoto encountered many dead animals, he also found a great degree of life. Cows grazed in fields. Live pigs and chickens, sharing their pens with the dead, survived.

He encountered farmers who were returning regularly to their land, driving in big trucks of food from far away. One horse breeder whose farm was destroyed drove 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) each day to buy food and water for his horses, Imamoto said.

Since this initial visit to Fukushima, Imamoto began a campaign to assist the animals left behind. Victims of the disaster, evacuated by bus, were required to leave their pets, being told they would have a chance to come back for them. They never did.

In his lecture, Imamoto displayed a photo of a small tan dog, curled up as if asleep on the front porch of a house. He said that such scenes were not rare, and speculates that these animals starved to death waiting for their owners to come home.

However, since dogs and cats were easier to transport and received more assistance from volunteer groups, he chose to focus his efforts on livestock, animals that were larger and harder to relocate. This effort has been complicated, Imamoto said, by the Japanese government’s resistance to saving these animals.

“The Japanese government wants to be able to say that all the livestock in Fukushima has been killed so that the Japanese public won’t have to be afraid to consume cows,” Imamoto said.

LEFT BEHIND — Many animals, both pets and livestock left behind by their owners, have been left to fend for themselves or starve in their pens after residents fled last year. photo courtesy of Hoshi Family

Imamoto said that the Japanese government encouraged farmers to euthanize surviving livestock.

“We’re feeding these pigs, but it’s going against what the government is telling me to do,” Imamoto said. “The government doesn’t allow us to go in for the purpose of feeding them, so I ‘just happen’ to bring a lot of food and ‘just happen’ to leave it in areas where animals live.”

Imamoto said he thinks putting the animals to death is not an appropriate solution. “Even if the animals can’t be used for food, they can be used for research,” he said. “Since they survived, we should make use of their lives.”

As part of his work, Imamoto also works to assist and call attention to the plight of farmers in the area, who have seen a dramatic loss in their profits. He said that there have been farmers who have committed suicide after seeing their livelihood suddenly vanish.

“I want you to remember that the perception that food from Fukushima will cause cancer, that kind of thought causes people to lose hope,” Imamoto said.

Imamoto noted that he gives water from 14 meters (45.9 miles) below ground to the animals he helps, and that he drinks the same water when he enters the area. He said that he has no concerns about his health now or in the future.

Visiting the site before and after the no-go zone, which he calls a “wall of death,” was established, Imamoto saw a huge difference. By the time he was able to return again in June 2011, many of the healthy animals he had encountered had died.

He displayed a photo of a pig that had browned with rot and was covered with maggots and flies, which he said was a typical sight at abandoned farms. The smells, he said, were strong enough to burn his eyes.

This situation remains at many farms even today, as they have never been cleaned, Imamoto said. He said this could result in major health hazards, but is being overlooked by the government.

“Living cows and dead cows together can cause diseases to spread,” Imamoto said. “There are many viruses that can be carried by flies. What will happen if they spread?”

As an extension of his work, Imamoto has become the chief medical advisor of Farm for Hope, an organization helping affected animals and farmers. He is also working to draft plans for the handling of animals in disasters, so this tragedy can inspire advance planning that could prevent mishandling in the future.

He has embarked on a tour of the United States to lecture on the subject, and has been spreading his word in Japan, appearing on television and radio and conducting lectures.

“If people don’t know about this, the same thing could happen again,” Imamoto said.

But the reaction of the Japanese public has been disappointing. “At the beginning, people wanted to do something,” Imamoto said. “But after time has passed, the disaster seemed so large and people started to think there was nothing they could do. People are becoming tired. They can’t even continue to try to help for a year.”

As for Imamoto, he has no plans to end his work in Fukushima. “I’ll continue until I’m satisfied. There’s still a lot to do,” he said.

Vickie Katsubayashi, who attended the lecture, said that, after hearing the presentation, she was upset by the Japanese government’s inaction and impressed by the doctor’s work.

“He wants Fukushima to thrive and the farmers to come back,” Katsubayashi said. “I think he’s doing a noble thing and it’s probably very frustrating. This one man is doing an amazing thing, and it’s very sad to me that the government will think it’s nothing, that the animals have no value.”

For information about the JCCCNC-established Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund (which co-sponsored the event) visit Kokoro4Japan.org or call (415) 567-5505.

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