Dr. Shigeki Imamoto shows photos of animals in the Fukushima "no-go" zone. (Photo courtesy of Jon Kawamoto/NJERF)

NJERF Communications Manager

It was a surreal scene of heartbreaking proportions being played out over and over in Fukushima Prefecture.

When the buses arrived to evacuate the nearly 80,000 people from the 20-kilometer (12-mile) “no-go” zone in Fukushima Prefecture, the residents were told by the government that they couldn’t bring their pets. Many, who thought they’d be able to return in a few days or a week, left their pets behind at the bus stops.

Days, however, turned into weeks. And weeks turned into months. It’s been a year now. And many of the pets starved to death – waiting for their owners at the site of the bus stops, Japanese veterinarian Dr. Shigeki Imamoto said.

Imamoto described the toll that the March 11, 2011 quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster left on the often overlooked and silent victims – pets and livestock abandoned in the “no-go” exclusion zone in Fukushima Prefecture.

His Feb. 10 appearance at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco was sponsored by the JCCCNC and the Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund to bring awareness of issues such as the plight of the Fukushima animals to the general public.

Imamoto, on his first visit to the U.S., made stops in New Orleans, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Lexington, Ky., and paid for the airfares.

Approximately two dozen people attended Imamoto’s hourlong presentation, which was punctuated with graphic photos and videos of dead and dying dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, and cows.

“People have to think more about the importance of life,” Imamoto said, with the help of translators Alice Kanno and Kenzo Tsukano. “Is it legitimate for humans to kill animals within the 20-kilometer zone?”

He added: “What kind of animals should we allow to live? How can we draw the line between life and death? I hope you can think about this today.”

Imamoto is the owner and operator of the Shinjo Animal Hospital in Nara Prefecture, about six hours from Fukushima Prefecture. He decided to travel to Fukushima and see what how the disaster affected pets and other animals.

When he visited the area on April 15, he was “very astonished” to find dairy cattle and beef cattle still alive and said the farmers were sneaking into the zone to feed their animals. Many claimed that the animals would not survive this long. He estimated that about 40 percent of the dairy cattle were still alive, fed by volunteers. When he returned two months later, they had all died of starvation.

On April 22, the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) imposed a 20-kilometer (12-mile) “no-go” exclusion zone near the failed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and evacuated nearly 80,000 residents. Currently, animal rescue groups are banned from entering the zone.

He estimated there were 10,000 dogs and cats in the “no-go” zone before 3/11. Of that number, 2,600 were killed in the quake and tsunami; 300 were evacuated; and 2,000 were rescued by volunteers. That left about 5,000 behind, and of that number, he estimates that 80 percent of those pets have died.

Imamoto visited a farm with 2,000 pigs and the farmer told him, “If my pigs die, I will die, too.” Veterinarians spent three days euthanizing the pigs (only livestock have been euthanized). Imamoto, who did not participate, said he can’t forget the sounds of the farmer crying out his lungs as he watched his pigs being put to death.

Horses in Fukushima received a far better fate. In May, most were rescued. Imamoto said the Japanese government decided against euthanizing the horses for three reasons: they could be used in public work like cultural events; they were never considered a food source; and public agencies could take responsibility for their care.

With a government permit, Imamoto has returned every month to Fukushima, chronicling his findings, visiting the farms and the animals, and making hygiene inspections.

He said that the subsequent discrimination against people from Fukushima over radiation concerns and the widespread fear of Fukushima beef, milk and produce has affected the livelihoods of many farmers. He noted that the beef prices are now down to one-third of what they were before 3/11.

“It doesn’t sell if it’s from Fukushima,” Imamoto said.

“All of these people worked really hard, but the future has been taken away from the people of Fukushima,” he said. “If there is no future, what is there to do? That’s why 100 people have committed suicide in Fukushima.”

“It’s not living in Fukushima that’s dangerous,” Imamoto said. “People discriminate against the people in Fukushima. That is what is killing the people of Fukushima. I want people to know that it’s this underlying aspect of how people treat each other that affects animals. We need to help and rebuild Japan.”

He said that in order to save the pets, “you have to save the owners.”

According to Imamoto, protests in Japan and from the U.S. about the government’s handling of animals have been largely ineffective and have been met with indifference.

“The government never had the will to save the animals,” he said. He pointed out that in the Japanese government, there is no official with a veterinary background. As a result, the plight of the Fukushima animals doesn’t register with the Japanese government, according to Imamoto.

Despite all this, he isn’t angry at the government for the current situation in Fukushima.

“No point in getting angry at the government,” he said. “It’s the citizens who will affect the change.”

Currently, the harsh winter in northern Japan and taking its toll on the remaining animals. He said there were no more dogs in the “no-go” zone, some cats, cows and pigs and about 100 horses.

In closing, Imamoto asked the audience to help spread awareness about the animals in Fukushima. He said he personally wasn’t accepting any donations. But he serves as chief medical advisor for the Japanese organization Farm of Hope, which supports Fukushima farmers. Farm of Hope is accepting donations and can be reached at http://fukushima-farmsanctuary.blogzine.jp/.

In addition, the Hachiko Coalition, a U.S. organization that is fighting to save the animals in Fukushima, assisted in Imamoto’s San Francisco appearance. The coalition is accepting donations at http://www.facebook.com/hachiko.coalition.

Before Imamoto’s presentation, Alma Cruz, vice president of the Hachiko Coalition, spoke about that group’s efforts to rescue the animals in the Fukushima zone. The coalition, formed soon after the 3/11 disaster, works with rescue groups like the Hoshi family, which has risked arrest and fines to enter the “no-go” zone to take pets and animals out. She said the coalition is currently raising funds and turns over the donations for veterinary care of the animals in shelters.

“We have to be a voice for the animals,” Cruz said.

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