Panel offers recommendations to aid animals in Japan's 'no-go' zone

Protocols, procedures for pets, livestock, wildlife contaminated by radiation
Published on June 15, 2011
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Dick Green wouldn't describe himself as an overly emotional person. Yet the brief, 209-word story in the May 10 edition of Asahi Simbun—Japan's Morning Sun Newspaper—brought him to tears.

"Today people forced to evacuate from the 20-km No-go zone around the Fukushima Daiichi are being allowed to make brief home visits for the first time. The Ministry of the Environment (MOE) and Fukushima Prefectural Government are going to rescue dogs and cats in the zone in principle," the story read.

The gist of the article was that the Japanese government was launching an initiative to save the thousands of companion animals left in the 12-mile evacuation area around the nuclear power plant, disabled since the earthquake and tsunami disasters of March 11. Up to 200 dogs and cats were expected to be brought out the week the article was published. 

Japan animal disaster relief panel
(Courtesy of IFAW/H. Watanabe)

Although there has been no official recognition saying so, Green, the disaster manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is confident that he and the team of radiation and animal rescue experts assembled by the IFAW had no small role in the government's decision.

The IFAW convened the expert panel in Tokyo May 2-3 with the goal of developing protocols to safely monitor, evacuate, and treat animals contaminated by radiation (see JAVMA, June 1, 2011). The panel's recommendations, titled "Nuclear Accidents and the Impact on Animals," were presented to the Japanese government May 9. Two days later, pet owners were allowed back into the evacuation zone.

For Green, the government edict isn't just a happy coincidence. "We don't care if the government acknowledges they're using our guidelines," he said. "The fact that it's happening is enough. We'll take it as a personal victory."

The expert panel comprised representatives of the Japanese and U.S. governments, veterinary and toxicology experts, academicians, and IFAW. Among the topics they addressed in the guidelines are radiation exposure, animal decontamination, animal sheltering, and human responder safety.

Green says the recommendations were written to be of immediate use in Japan and for "communities with nuclear reactors in their backyard" to develop their own emergency response plans that take animals into mind.

One of Maj. Kelley Evans' responsibilities as a staff officer with the U.S. Army Veterinary Command has been ensuring the safety of military dogs in the event of a chemical, biological, radiologic, or nuclear incident. Maj. Evans and her fellow panel members wrote the guidelines to address the current crisis but also to provide direction for responding to the sort of disaster where next-to-no guidance previously existed, she explained.

"Some of the recommendations, we hope, could be used and further developed to serve as general guidelines for any radiation or nuclear incident in the future," Maj. Evans said.

The recommendations follow the human health safety standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency and were written with the understanding that the two contaminants released from the Fukishima power plant in the greatest amounts are radioactive iodine and cesium.

What to do with animals caught up in a large-scale nuclear disaster is mostly uncharted territory, given the rarity of such events. The panel's recommendations are posted online at

Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries' response plan for livestock is "very good," according to Green, and the panel suggested only that more personnel be put in the field to expedite the evaluation process. Injured or dead wildlife are to be sent to the Fukishima Wildlife Animal Rehabilitation Center for assessment. Data will be collected and evaluated to provide a better understanding of the radiologic impacts on these animals.

Panel member Dr. Lisa Murphy, who is also an AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Team 2 member, noted that the recommendations include a flowchart detailing steps for protecting emergency responders entering the no-go zone to rescue pets. "The goal is to spend as little time as possible in that zone to collect the animals (and) bring them to a central location where they can be decontaminated and checked and processed. Then it's decided whether they stay for further evaluation or move on to another shelter or to their owners," she explained.

Dr. Murphy is also an assistant professor of toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and co-chair of the Animal Decontamination Best Practice Working Group for the National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs.

The panel recommended rigorous standards for ensuring these pets are not a danger to the public or other animals. For that reason, the maximum level of radiation contamination considered safe for companion animals is a tenth the level considered safe for livestock. "Compared to livestock, pets are going to be in much closer proximity to people, sitting in laps, sleeping in beds, and exposed to other pets," Dr. Murphy noted.

Those maximum safety standards may be viewed as the panel acting overly cautious, but Dr. Murphy believes it best to err on the side of caution. "In disasters like this, we want to do everything we can for the health and welfare of the animals involved. However, the health and safety of the responders and the public always come first, regardless," she said.

Rescuers expect different levels of radioactivity in animals, depending on location. "Whenever we encounter rescued animals at the level needing decontamination, we will follow the recommendations in the committee's report," said Konishi Yutaka, Office of Animal Companionship, Nature Conservation Bureau, Japan Ministry of Environment.

There will be animals rescued from the no-go zone that are ill or debilitated, either as a result of malnutrition or radiation exposure, which is why the recommendations state a veterinary professional should evaluate each animal brought to the collection area. For some animals, euthanasia may be the most humane treatment option.

The big question for Dr. Murphy is what happens if it turns out that pets rescued from the no-go zone continue showing higher-than-safe radiation levels.

"I don't know what would happen then," she said. "Maybe that's something the government and NGOs like IFAW can address."