What's the fallout for pets abandoned in Japan's Fukushima hot zone?

PBS NewsHour's Jenny Marder wrote a really interesting feature about the abandoned pets inside the Fukushima evacuation zone in Japan. I encountered some of them when I traveled to the area with Safecast and PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien (our resulting PBS NewsHour report video is here).

Jenny digs into what happened with the volunteer effort to rescue and adopt the abandoned pets, and talks to scientists about the effect of fallout on animals (including intergenerational and genetic changes, like what the world saw within bird and wild animal populations after Chernobyl). Snip:

At the tail end of Miles O'Brien's latest NewsHour report on radiation in Japan, a golden dog with a thick red collar trots into the street of the abandoned town, Katsurao, and weaves along the center divider.

Miles asks, off camera: "Do we have anything to feed him?"

The piece, which airs tonight, reports on the group Safecast, which has measured, mapped and crowdsourced data on radiation levels in locations throughout Japan, particularly in the hot spots near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The dog was one of several scrawny, undernourished dogs and cats they encountered, most likely abandoned by their owners during rapid evacuation.

Read more: What's the Fallout for Dogs Near Fukushima? (The Rundown News Blog | PBS NewsHour)

(Photos in this post by Sean Bonner: all iPhone snapshots of abandoned pets we encountered in the evacuation zone, shot during our drive from Tokyo to Fukushima in August, 2011)


  1. It might not be the owner’s fault.  I don’t know how it is in Japan, but in the US you aren’t allowed to bring pets along on an evacuation.

    1. Agreed. Definitely don’t blame the owners. So many factors to consider. How long did they think they’d be gone? Where did they evacuate to? So few evac centers, or other temporary housing options, would have allowed pets. It is absolutely not the pet owners’ fault. It’s just a terribly sad footnote in a terribly sad story that has affected, and continues to affect, so many people (and other living things). If this portion of the story helps remind the world to care about the victims of Fukushima, that’s a good thing. Because their fate seems to have been all but forgotten outside of Japan.

    2. They forcibly took the dogs and cats from the people forced themselves to board buses out of New Orleans after Katrina hit. The National Guard handed the pets over to people who killed them on the spot. I will always remember the child screaming as they dragged his dog away. I never will respect my nation after seeing that. There was no need. We have plenty of money. It was simple sadism directed against the poor. Who the hell would obey such an order? Drag the people’s pets away while other troops hold guns at the ready? There was no need! The world was not ending, the enemy was not advancing, the tornado was not about to touch down. There are plenty of cars and buses and empty buildings to put people and their pets in. We just didn’t want to; a large number of humans really don’t see dogs and cats as anything other than a combination of a nuisance and a hindrance, and think nothing of slaughtering them.

      1. After surviving such trauma to kill the animals of those people who needed comfort and friends is shocking. Perhaps we should see the pets who were abandoned as survivors then, given freedom, the ones who managed to escape being needlessly and cruelly slaughtered.
        Sorry was thinking the Japanese had killed the pets then, I should have realised that they are much too sensitive and honorable to have done that. Yes I would take to the hills with my cats if it came to the push.

  2. This makes me queasy to even think about. If I had to leave my pets behind, I would do anything to go back and get them. How many pets were left locked safely in their homes by owners who thought they’d be able to come back in a day or two? What a nightmare :(

  3. I know probably most evacuation efforts do not allow pets onboard, so do shelters.

    I know it’s utterly stupid, and at least I wont pass on my genes, but if my cats are healthy, and I had to live thorough something like this, I would not leave or evacuate unless I’m allowed to take them. Other wise I’ll stay.

    If they come with the response that evacuation is compulsory, I’d lock myself in home, and finally probably force them to either leave me or shoot me dead (if a gun confrontation is unavoidable I’d try to leave some sort of escape route for the cats first).

    1. Bliss, that’s crazy talk and you know it.
      Priorities in a forced evacuation, in this order:
      Any neighbors who need help (especially the elderly)
      Pets and livestock

      If you only have time to attend properly to the first, you will have to leave it to the authorities to help with the other two.  If you have time to attend to the first two, great.  If you have time to attend to all three, that’s best-case.

      Locking yourself in your house waiting for someone to shoot you because you love your cat more than your human family or neighbors is maximally S.E.L.F.I.S.H.  Not to mention a totally fucked up thing to do or suggest.

      1. Thing is, the “authorities” usually don’t.  Otherwise they’d take care of it in the first place. 

        Also, I wonder by what right the state has to make an evacuation compulsory anyway.   If I die, that’s my prerogative. I’m allowed to practice high-risk sports, take deadly drugs (alcohol, for example), join the army. Hell, even suicide isn’t forbidden. 

        Thanks, but no thanks if I can’t take my cats.    

        1. Actually, it depends on where you live, whether or not suicide is legal:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_legislation

          It seems kind of fuzzy in the US and dependent on a lot of factors, but I wouldn’t call it legal.

          1. Thankfully, these whacked out laws do not apply where I live.   

            And while I checked only lightly, there seems to be a high correlation between capital punishment and suicide being illegal, which makes kinda sense.  

        2. Martial Law, risk to others, etc. If you want to die go for it, but if you want out of whatever exclusionary zone after it has been made a no-go zone, you are screwed.

      2. Jeez, dude. An impressive attempt to pretend that your lack of empathy is the real empathy. But ultimately a failure.

        I wouldn’t leave a pet.

        1. Oh, I have empathy… for DOGS.  That’s what this argument boils down to: yet another fight between cat people and dog people.  Which is ludicrous, because obviously dogs are superior. If Bliss hadn’t mentioned cats, I probably would have let it pass.  Dogs rule!

        2. Really?  That’s awesome for you, but not everyone has the luxury of being able to take their pet with them during something so chaotic, where they may lack resources, money, and time to properly plan.  Sometimes it’s just impossible.  And to make those who have to make such a hard choice into heartless villains is awful, and I’d say you and others who think the same way are the ones without empathy, not awjt.

          1. Maybe it’s the 3 beers I’ve had?  But I just find it kind of hilarious that you say “I wouldn’t leave a pet” when you’ve likely never even had to face such a tough decision.  That’s a pretty definitive answer in regards to a very complex, unknowable situation. How do you really know?  I’m sure we’d all like to save everything and everyone we want to … but life doesn’t always work out the way we want.

          2. But would this complex, unknowable situation ever involve leaving your kids behind? I don’t think it would. No one is actually talking about trying “to save everything”. It’s your pet, not your Pink Floyd vinyls. If you don’t have a car, carry it.

            Again (and not to literally conflate the two), if a shelter had a big No Children or Babies sign, we wouldn’t be discussing the ‘tough decisions’. This is specific to pets, and to someone’s value judgements in a given situation.

            Personally, my cat goes in the car, the same as my girlfriend. If a shelter won’t take me like that, I’ll sleep in the car. If I don’t have a car, I’ll sleep outside. But that’s based on my priorities.

          3. I’m with you, Trav. For some people, their dogs (or cats) are their family. My dog and I have a particularly close relationship because he’s a service animal who works with my terminally-ill parents and 6-8 housebound seniors a month. 

            My dog is as much my family as my parents or GF are. We’re all going out together. I evacuated my apartment during the Oakland Hills fire with a backpack. I grew up in Earthquake Country and the Loma Prieta ‘quake destroyed my apartment.

            So I have an evacuation plan and 2 backpacks of essentials that I’ll grab when we flee the house. One of the backpacks is a set of panniers for my dog. I’ve familiarized him with his gear and practiced putting it on him as quickly as possible.

            I understand that disasters happen quickly, and in the case of a tsunami, all the preparation in the world will probably have less impact on your eventual survival than plain dumb luck. But having a plan and a backpack of your essentials will diminish the chances of having to choose between carrying out your elderly father or carrying out your cat. I send up a sincere atheist prayer to the FSM that none of us commenting here will be faced with this choice.

            So instead of indulging in Desert Island Disc-style rumination about who you’d save, do some research, prepare your kit and rehearse your evacuation plan. If you have a dog, spend some time training her to respond to voice commands under stressful conditions. The ASPCA offers a number of suitable and affordable classes, as well as some excellent first aid classes that will benefit both pets and people in the wake of a disaster.

      3. There was time to save all the people and all the pets. This was not a zero-sum situation. It almost never is. 

  4. Oh, the “authorities” will evacuate the crazy cat-people along with everyone else too… Except the crazy cat bus heads towards the disaster rather than away from it… 

    1. Oh, nice. Advocating to kill dissidents who planned not to harm anyone unless attacked. The sign of a true humanitarian, 

  5. I would never abandon my two dogs. The thought of them starving to death by themselves would torture me forever. If an evacuation order comes, they’re coming with me. I don’t care if it means I need to walk 20 miles through hostile terrain with a backpack full of pet food, power bars and bottled water. They’re coming with me.

    1. Do you have children?  Because people with children have different priorities than you or I.  I have two cats, and I’d do as much as I could to save them in such a situation, if I could.  But if I had kids, I would put them first, even if it meant having to leave my cats behind.  And I think most people would do the same.

      1. Yeah, but what action movie situation would actually require you to choose between your cats and kids? Pick up cat, throw in car.

        1. Um.  Evacuations are not usually that easy.  They are usually chaotic and complicated.  What if where you are going won’t allow cats, like many shelters don’t?  Or you have nowhere really TO go, and bringing along the cat would just make things more difficult?  What if you have two cats?  Three?  Four?

          What if you don’t have a car? I lived many years without one.

          Evacuations are messy and chaotic.  Sometimes you have to make tough choices.

          I’m just glad I live in Phoenix, where an evacuation outside of, say, a nuclear bomb (in which case, we’re all fucked) is slim to none.

      2. False dilemma.  No one is giving you such a choice. Take your children and the pets. The Tripods are not just over the horizon; you have time. To leave the pets behind is sadistic.

  6. Before this turns flamey, can I ask the Commentators at Large if anyone here has actually ever HAD to leave a pet behind?  Just wondering. 

    When I was getting my last degree, I was friendly with a guy who was trapped in a sudden house fire–on the top floor. His beloved dog was downstairs.  The rickety old rental house he was in burned so fast that his only way out was to literally jump out of a second-floor window; he couldn’t make it out of his bedroom any other way (he lucked out and landed on shrubs planted against the house, after doing as much of a “straight down/hanging drop” as he could and “only” got a very bad sprain of both ankles and knees).

    Later that week in class, when he put out a general appeal for donations of ANYTHING (he literally lept out of the bedroom in his tighty whities and barefoot; he was wearing stuff that the Red Cross gave him when we saw him next), he mentioned his dog. 

    He got REALLY lucky. When the house was burning, a collapsing floor pulled out part of some nonburning wall near the kitchen, where his dog had been cowering, and the second that the fire department started to put water on the mess the dog was able to bolt outside.  But my classmate said that the worst feeling he had wasn’t the terror of HIMSELF getting burned alive, it was the awful feeling of his beloved dog dying terrified and trapped and alone. 

    This is from a guy who literally lost every last thing he had in the world except one pair of BVDs, his life, and his dog.  His car caught fire in the car hutch and was destroyed for good when that collapsed, and all of his notes–his whole final year of school’s work–was gone gone gone.  And the one thing that spooked him was the prospect of losing his dog.

    1. I don’t think people aren’t saying that it would be easy to leave a beloved pet behind.  In fact, most people say it would be very difficult.  But, sometimes you have to make hard decisions, and sometimes … a child or a family member comes first.  Or, like your friend, there is no safe way to get the pet.  He had to make a choice, and if it weren’t for luck, the poor dog would have died.  Which would have been tragic and I would have complete empathy for that poor man (and the poor dog), but I would also understand why he did what he had to do, and I would never tell him that he made the wrong choice.

      1. Marilove,

        EXACTLY.  Nobody would have faulted him for not trying to negotiate a burning staircase to get his dog! 

        Does anyone remember the footage of the Japanese evac centers?  They literally had futons on every square horizontal weight-bearing inch.  Sadly, there really was no room for nonhuman life there.  Tragic all around, but completely unavoidable.

  7. Incidentally, let me add that it was a really small dog–some kind of Pekingese/mopdog mutt hybrid thingy that you could easily fit in a paper breadloaf-bag.  So, it didn’t need much room to hide in or much of a wall breach to escape. 

  8. The worst part of it? Those animals may be contaminated and dangerous to anyone who might try to rescue them. If they’ve been living and scavenging in an area so highly radioactive, it doesn’t take long for that problem to work it’s way up the food chain. I wish I could save every last one of them, but they may have to be rounded up and euthanized as a public health risk. It’s another tragic aspect of an already huge tragedy.

  9. OK, all flaming goofishness aside, it would be damned hard to leave pets behind.  Even a damn fish.  I had a prized Cichlid named Big Lips a few years ago, and I would have been heartbroken if I had to leave her.  But I stand by my checklist: family, neighbors, then pets.  If I have time for all three, so be it; otherwise, I’ll follow the hierarchy.  Sorry to offend, if I did.  It’s just my personal code.

  10. Rules may be rules but I would never leave my cats Sparky and Olivia behind if I had to evacuate. They are my soul, my heart, my love. Without them I am not me.

  11. I know I mentioned this in a previous thread about Fukushima, but I’ll post it here again. Many pet owners were forced to leave their pets behind. Many of them snuck back into restricted areas, risking their own lives and health to save them. 

    When many residents were finally allowed to return to collect a few personal belongings, some didn’t want to leave again. Crying, begging, those overseeing the operation to be with the animals they had raised since childhood (some, for generations) Pets are not only cats and dogs – there were cows, horses, chickens, and even ostriches. Many like one infamous ostrich on 2ch, let to run loose to fend for itself for the first time in its life… the alternative to dying in a cage.


    I am sure the author means no malice when they say “abandoned by their owners” but please don’t assume so that it was done lightly.

    I am glad that BB has been covering the efforts of the victims in Japan coping with the hardships of the disaster – especially those related to pets and animals.

  12. A society that cannot morally see itself clear to saving the dogs and cats dependent on their humans is well along the path to blindly abandoning humans. Little crimes lead to larger crimes. I’d point out the obvious group of humans and animals Americans blindly killed and unhomed the past ten years, but I will leave that as an exercise. Sadism starts small and grows rapidly.

    1. Are you serious? You’re arguing with a slippery slope fallacy for a COMPLETELY different case?

      This is the Japanese Government doing what they think is best to preserve HUMAN life in a freaking NUCLEAR CRISIS, as cold and selective as that sounds (but hey, space isn’t exactly generous at the moment and unlike a hurricane or flood probably won’t be for another 30 years) and you’re comparing that to poachers that hunt animals towards extinction (for profit) as though they’re the same party. Do you know how RIDICULOUS that sounds?

       Wake up lady, this has nothing to do with crimes against animals. This is about SURVIVAL. It isn’t supposed to be as pretty as the movies make it out to be.

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