Japan's animal relief operations face considerable challenges

Evacuees reportedly risking radiation exposure to retrieve abandoned pets
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Japan is in the throes of what is known in the disaster and emergency management community as a "cascading disaster." This is what happens when one calamity leads to another calamity and so on, with no immediate end in sight.

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake on March 11 created a tsunami that razed entire communities in the Tōhoku prefecture and so severely damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station that the nation's Prime Minister Naoto Kan subsequently declared a nuclear emergency that, at press time in April, was still in effect.

"Unlike a lot of disasters where you reach a point you can say the disaster response part is over and you begin the recovery effort, in Japan we're clearly very much engaged in an ongoing disaster," said Debrah Schnackenberg, senior vice president of Emergency Services Programs for the American Humane Association.

Ishinomaki, a city in the Myagi prefecture, was one of the worst-hit areas during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. More than 2,000 people are confirmed dead there, with just as many still missing.

The AHA is part of a large international contingent supporting animal relief efforts in Japan—efforts overseen by a government-sanctioned coalition consisting of domestic animal protection and veterinary groups. Already, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been donated, along with tons of pet food and other basic necessities, with much more promised.

The national coalition has set up a warehouse in Tokyo to receive and organize supplies that are then sent to three major animal shelters established throughout the disaster area in the country's northeast region.

Projections about the number of companion animals killed in one of Japan's worst natural disasters vary wildly, Schnackenberg explained, as estimates are based on human death totals and expected levels of pet ownership. Whatever the true tally, she anticipates the impact on animals will be considerable, given that the human death toll has exceeded 12,000 and a large proportion of Japanese society own pets.

"The number we're looking at is probably well into the thousands," Schnackenberg said. Survivors who have had their lives turned upside down will bear the additional burden of a pet's death and, possibly, guilt over leaving the animal behind. "I anticipate these folks are going to experience the sorts of emotional trauma and heartbreak Katrina survivors did," she said.

Those who have surveyed parts of the disaster zone say the extent of destruction is difficult to comprehend but point out the situation could have been much worse were it not for the nation's advanced emergency response and preparedness training.

Dogs in car
Animals aren't allowed in many shelters, like this one in Fukushima City, so pets are being kept in cars. Owners live out of their vehicles with their animals and go into the shelters during mealtime.

Shortly after the humanitarian response began, a small number of foreign teams were dispatched to Japan to assess the animal welfare situation. Less than two weeks after the disaster, a World Society for the Protection of Animals team reported that of the approximately 350,000 people staying in evacuation centers, as many as 10 percent had brought pets. Many centers are not allowing animals inside, so pet owners have resorted to housing their animals in cars.

Like the WSPA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare sent representatives to coordinate with Japanese officials as to the most effective use of foreign aid. Dick Green, IFAW's emergency response manager, spent a week on the island nation in late March and early April meeting with members of the government, the Japan VMA and Japan Animal Welfare Society, and other "major players" engaged in the animal side of the relief response.

Green says the geographic area damaged by the earthquake and tsunami is a major challenge to animal relief operations. "This is like taking Katrina, which impacted Mississippi, Louisiana, parts of Texas, and a little bit of Alabama, and multiplying that times five," he said. The Japanese coalition expects emergency animal sheltering may be needed for up to two years.

"In the U.S., we typically try to transition our emergency shelters as quickly as we can into existing shelters. In Japan, they are planning to set up these shelters for the long haul," he said. The workforce demand to conduct such a sustained operation could necessitate hiring outside help, Green added.

While a major concern is the radiologic impact on animals—the effects of which are largely unknown—a more immediate problem is people retrieving pets in evacuated areas around the leaking Fukushima power plant. A mandatory evacuation order is in effect for people within a 12-mile zone around the plant, while those living within a 12- to 18-mile area are under a voluntary evacuation order.

"Hundreds of animals were left in that evacuation zone, and we know people are going back for them. Just like anywhere in the world, there's that human-animal bond, and now it's taking a toll," Green said.

It isn't unusual for people to put themselves at risk to recover a pet that's been left behind during an emergency, he explained, but doing so during a radiologic disaster puts others in danger.

"Our concern is that, without proper protective equipment and without proper decontamination procedures, we're going to get cross-contamination," said Green, who's asked Japan's national government to quickly convene a panel of experts to find solutions. He's also working with veterinarians and government officials in the Fukushima prefecture—home of the crippled reactor—to form a similar committee at the local level.

Such a panel would devise protocols and procedures for decontaminating animals and create evacuation teams to retrieve pets in areas where radioactivity levels are reasonably safe.

The expert panel could also investigate radiation contamination in animals, especially pets and wildlife, since limited research is available on the subject. "We don't know what a safe level is or at what level the animal survives and can be rehabbed or even what level is considered minor contamination," Green said. "Those are the questions we don't have answers to, and that's what we're hoping this group of experts will be able to address."

Data gleaned from Japan's nuclear crisis could help establish procedures and protocols useful in similar emergencies in the future, Green said.

Resources for veterinarians and pet owners about the disaster are posted on the AVMA website. They include information about radiation safety and potassium iodide.