At press time in late March, the international community awaited word on how they could support animal rescue and relief efforts in Japan following one of the worst natural disasters in the country's history.
On March 11 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan unleashed a tsunami on the Tōhoku region in the northeast part of the country. An area spanning more than 400 miles was flooded, and entire towns were swept away.
Officials confirmed the number of dead at more than 9,000—a number sure to rise, given that nearly 14,000 people were reported missing.
Making matters worse, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was severely damaged during the tsunami, and engineers were working around the clock to prevent a meltdown.
The brunt of the humanitarian response was being focused on the human victims of the disaster. And as the human toll was being assessed, it was becoming clear that even less was known about how badly the animals of the Tōhoku region have been affected.
In the meantime, the AVMA, American Veterinary Medical Foundation, and several U.S. and international animal protection organizations stood ready to provide logistic and financial aid as needed.
"While the AVMA's disaster response team program—the AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Team program—is focused primarily on United States response, we are prepared to assist in these efforts if and when it might be appropriate," said Dr. Heather Case, the AVMA emergency preparedness and response coordinator.
In a March 16 email to nongovernmental organizations from Dr. Yoshihisa Yamane, the Japan VMA president described Tōhoku as a region in confusion where transportation is a "serious problem" because of gasoline shortages. A lack of food and water for people and animals was also a major concern.
"But even in the chaos, some veterinarians have begun to (sic) first-aid movement for animals. We have to support them to ensure of smooth operation for their activities. Now, we are preparing to send relief goods," Dr. Yamane wrote.
In addition, there are reports of Japanese animal welfare groups rescuing and sheltering stray dogs, cats, and other animals left homeless by the disaster.
Dick Green is the emergency response manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the organization that, along with the World Society for the Protection of Animals, is overseeing the animal relief outreach in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Green has been monitoring the situation in Japan from IFAW headquarters in Yarmouth Port, Mass., and is in contact with people in Japan dealing with the animal welfare situation. But more than a week after the disaster, Green had no clear assessment about the number of animals affected.
Still, Green predicted the number of dogs and cats needing food, water, shelter, and veterinary care would become more apparent in the coming days. "We know that approximately one-third of Japanese households have a pet, and more than half of these are dog owners," he said. "Over 300,000 people are in shelters, and we know a lot of animals were left behind. Common sense tells us there are a lot of dogs and cats needing shelter."
Tōhoku is home to several livestock operations, but Green was hearing government officials say they had that situation under control. He was also hearing about farmers in desperate need of water for their animals, however. He suspects large numbers of backyard livestock are also in the region, but there was little information confirming this, given the remoteness of these areas.
Green wasn't expecting Japan's disaster would warrant the same high level of international support Haiti saw, on account of Japan's network of animal rescue groups and intact government structure.
"In Japan, they have a structure similar to the United States in that they have a huge database of volunteers," Green explained. "Once they get a plan and figure out how to address all these animal issues, they will have the people there to do the work.
"There will not be the influx of the international NGOs into Japan that we saw in Haiti," Green said.
Although he questioned whether Japan's animal protection community was prepared to mount a large-scale relief operation, Green expects the international community's role will be limited to a few key areas. NGOs, he said, may eventually be asked to assist with assessing the scope of the animal welfare problem, identifying ways of meeting these needs over the long term, and providing financial support to get the job done.
R. Scott Nolen