(Reuters) - Taeko Nose says she may never forget the image of her two dogs - "her children" as she calls them - tied up on a leash as she was forced to leave her home during Japan's nuclear crisis. Certainly three months afterwards, it's still etched in her mind. "I was told to get into a bus and leave my children behind," said Taeko Nose, 62, remembering the mandatory evacuation during the nuclear crisis that followed the deadly March 11 earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan, killing 15,000 people. "I had no choice but to leave them on a leash in a garage. Their faces still traumatize me today," she said in a telephone interview, referring to her dogs Maron and Seri.
Nose wasn't the only one. More than three months later, thousands of dogs and cats are still homeless, while some 90,000 people are forced to live in evacuation centers. Many of them are still separated from their pets.Tens of thousands of residents within 20 km (12 miles) of the stricken nuclear plants were ordered to abandon their homes with little warning. Residents had to leave their pets behind, believing they would be able to go home in a few days.
While such a situation would undoubtedly be wounding in many countries, it has been particularly painful in Japan, where animals hold a special place at the center of many households and pet ownership is widespread. To save the lives of as many animals as possible, rescue groups have been working around the clock, and like in similar crises, social media has played an important role in the effort.
Even after April 22, when the government imposed a strict ban on unauthorized personnel entering the exclusion zone, volunteers have been staging clandestine trips, slipping into the zone "guerrilla style," as one of the organizers describes it. "This isn't just helping animals but it's helping people. You can't separate the two," said Isabella Aoki Galleon, an organizer for Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support, one of the most active animal rescue groups in the disaster zone. "They lost everything, lives and homes, and often pets are the only things they have left. The psychological damage is huge on top of everything else they had to suffer," she said, explaining why the work is continuing. "For us, it's still a long, ongoing situation."
Before the Japanese government imposed the ban, Galleon and her teams entered the zone mostly guided by the requests of desperate owners. But once inside, they found many displaced animals wandering the streets, and the teams had no idea how to locate their owners. "If you go into the zone, animals were all over the place - farm animals, dogs, and cats. Animals were in distress on roads and they were in a very bad shape," she said. "People were not able to get access to their pets and basically animals were starving to death."
Galleon said there were 3,000 to 5,000 animals within the exclusion zone. In Fukushima, in the immediate area of the stricken nuclear plant, the rescue team has taken out at least 300 animals so far. Some of the survivors' stories are heartbreaking. Yukiko Shirakawa, 48, who lived about 5 km from the crippled nuclear plant in the town of Tomioka, was forced to evacuate while at work. Not getting a chance to go home, she had to leave two dogs behind.
But Shirakawa had to leave much more than her dogs behind. Although she did not know it at the time, she later was to learn her only daughter was killed in the tsunami. While Shirakawa was waiting for a DNA test to identify her 26-year-old daughter, an organization called Inu Neko Minashigo Kyuentai, or Rescue Crews for Orphan Dogs and Cats, found one of the dogs, Nono. "Nono was my daughter's favorite of the two dogs," Shirakawa said. "The other dog died of starvation, but Nono survived. I think my daughter protected Nono."
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Watch a touching video of two dogs staying together in the aftermath.