Sunday, April 17, 2011

Helping our furry friends (Part II)

On our first day at Animal Garden, the name of the hotel/shelter in Niigata, I offered to help with whatever they needed. It turned out that the next day, Toshi, one of the co-owners of Heart Tokushima, another shelter that is part of JEARS, was heading across the island to Fukushima Prefecture on the east coast. A homeowner had contacted JEARS about a stray cat. Also, a rescue team on an earlier trip had spotted a group of dogs inside the evacuation zone but had not been able to catch them.

As it was a eight-hour round trip and potentially many hours searching, I was offered the chance to accompany Toshi and provide what help I could. Joan and I both looked at each other; we had talked about this as a possibility and had decided it would be ok to go if given the chance. To be honest, as much as I wanted to help with the animals, I was also very curious to see the situation on the ground in Fukushima. Other groups had gone in before with Geiger counters, and the authorities were letting residents return briefly to their homes to retrieve belongings and animals, so we were not greatly concerned with the short-term risks. The majority of radiation had been released in the first three days of the reactor failures, and we didn't plan on staying inside the evacuation zone for more than a few hours.

So, with a van full of animal food, cages, and other supplies, we left on our long journey. The drive to Fukushima through the mountains was beautiful. I could tell we were headed in the right direction as we joined all the convoys of utility and other emergency vehicles going the same way. At every rest area, we saw tankers full of drinking water, power line trucks, military vehicles, etc.

The first sign that something had happened were the many blue tarps on the roofs of many old homes. The earthquake dislodged many of the heavy, clay ridge tiles, exposing the crest of the house to rain and snow. Also, the roads would occasionally have a strange pitch or a bump/dip that seemed more than the usual.

Our first stop was near Minamisoma, north of the evacuation zone by about 20 miles and two miles in from the ocean. We attempted to contact the homeowner and/or spot the cat but with no luck. This is not an atypical occurance. While not directly related to the earthquake , it is the type of rescue that Animal Garden does on a regular basis. The disaster(s) obviously increased the need.

We turned south and drove closer to the coast. At first, the area looked fine, and I had to
pay careful attention to notice anything amiss. Then suddenly we came around the corner of a road, and there in front of us was a huge, flat basin of destruction. There was nothing left but mud, ridges where road and embankments used to be, and a horrible, jumbled mass of flotsam and jetsam of what used to be farms, houses, and people's lives. The photos don't really capture the scale of it all. We were silent for quiet some time as we drove closer to it and through it on roads that had survived. Crushed cars, tractors, even a fire engine were scattered about. I'm sure we've all seen the footage on
television and the Internet.

As the land rose and fell, the watermark of the tsunami was clearly visible. It seemed that luck and topography made all the difference.

Using a map and Toshi's Iphone Google Maps, we carefully made our way through and out of the tsunami affected areas, heading toward the evacuation area.

On a related side note, we spoke with our friend, Shuji, about why so many people died in the
tsunami. "Why didn't they evacuate? Did the tsunami come too fast? What happened?" we asked him. He pointed out that there are many tsunami warnings in Japan and that many people had not taken it seriously. However, the largest factor was the sheer size of the tsunami. It exceeded all the projections and planning. People had evacuated. They ran to predetermined safe areas. And the waters still took them.

As we approached the evacuation zone, we encountered our first police check point. After Toshi explained our purpose, we were told that only residents and those on official business were allowed in. We drove further inland and met another check point. After that, Toshi turned onto a small road and drove up into the hills. Scouring the map and zooming in on Google Maps, he found what turned out to be a gravel, two-track road across a forested hillside that connected with a paved road on the other side. As we drove down the valley, passing many empty and shuttered houses, we wondered if we would find any animals.

Almost immediately, we spotted a dog trotting up the road toward us. We stopped and fed the
dog but were unable to determine if he was a stray. It was also obvious that he was not interested in being rescued. We checked the nearby houses, but no one was there, so we pushed on to the town of Odaka. While in the evacuation zone, we saw almost 10 dogs, most of which we were able to feed and none of whom we were able to capture. None looked emaciated or injured; they had been able to survive for at least a month already.

If you want to see a map of the route from Niigata to Odaka, try this link. The fourth and southern marker is the location of the Fukushima Daichi power plant, about 12 miles south of Odaka.

In downtown Odaka, we saw some serious earthquake damage, with many houses collapsed or tumbled into the street. The power was on, so the traffic lights eerily changed as no cars passed by. While not completely empty, it was quite eerie and felt like a ghost town. We finally reached the train station and cast about for the dogs. It was obvious from the mud on the road that the station, near the river, had flooded but not too deeply. We called out for the dogs and shook bowls full of food but to no avail. As it was growing dim and starting to rain, we decided to head north back out of the evacuation area. We had been warned about not being out in the rain with the potential fallout being collected in the drops of water.

We traced our route back, peering into yards and at houses, looking for animals that might need help. We were not comfortable with potentially trespassing, and media chatter of looters made us even more uncomfortable with our position. Once we scrambled back up the much more slippery two track, we breathed a sigh of relief as we left the evacuation zone.

As we drove away, sharing our thoughts and observations, we saw a bedraggled, wet dog walking down a sidewalk. Quickly stopping, we gave him some food and tried to assess his status. He had a collar but no tag. He was hungry and had an injured paw; he also had a cut above his eye and a gash on his nose. He was friendly and did not object to a leash. Again, we tried to contact nearby homeowners to see if he was a local dog but with no luck.

So we decided to load him in a cage and take him with us. It is a difficult decision. There have been cases where volunteers have accidentally rescued dogs that didn't need it. An irate phone call from an owner can result in a long and embarrassing return trip.

We turned west toward Niigata for a long trip home. It was even
longer thanks to the slow-moving convoy of Kobe police vehicles that completely hogged the road. Then the horrendous traffic jam in Fukushima made it worse. We didn't get back to the shelter until 1:00 am; a 16-hour round trip.

And, to top it all off, while we were stopped at a convenience store to get a drink and use the rest room, there was a 7.1 earthquake right under our feet that violently shook the van back and forth.

While it was a long and stressful day and we were only able to rescue one animal, I'm glad I had the opportunity to help and to see that area of Japan. It is definitely the strangest road trip I have ever taken...

Oh, you're probably wondering what they're calling the dog. It's "Benji" - short for "benri" (convenient) because he was rescued in the parking lot of a "conbini" (convenience store).

And if you want to see more photos, click on this link.

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