March 31, 2011

Bits and pieces from Japan

Unlike in Haiti (where I had hours to spend in my tent avoiding mosquitoes and blogging) I had virtually no time (nor energy) to blog from Japan. I've gotten numerous emails, phone calls, interviews, etc about my trip so I've sort of half-a**ed them together into a semi-informative blog post.
Enjoy :)

Where have you been exactly sent in Japan ? Around Fukushima (about 30 km around I'd say, since the area is dangerous), or in Tohoku region?I was deployed to the city of Niigata (in the Niigata prefecture) where I met with volunteers from the Japanese Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (known as J.E.A.R.S.). From Niigata we traveled east to the city of Sendai (Miyagi prefecture), which was 80km from the earthquake epicenter.

What were your first impressions ? Was the situation much more disastrous than you expected, or even that you've ever seen (more disastrous than in Haiti for instance)? The physical damage I saw was mostly in the coastal area of Sendai, which was completely destroyed by the tsunami. Inland areas of Miyagi suffered structural damage from the earthquake - some cracked roads, minor damage to buildings, etc. The most deleterious effects to these areas were the lack of fuel and supplies, which halted transportation and prevented supplies from reaching evacuation centers. Outside of Miyagi (in Niigata and Tokyo) I did not see any related damage from the earthquake/tsunami.
The Haitian earthquake affected the entire country. I did not see one area that was not damaged or destroyed by the earthquake. Roads were severely cracked or completely gone and buildings were either destroyed or severely damaged.
The devastation in Haiti and Japan is comparable, however, I believe the entire country of Haiti was severely affected, whereas Japan's damage is localized to specific regions near the epicenter. A simplified explanation would be that the Haitian earthquake caused everything to fall or break; the Japanese earthquake and tsunami washed everything away.

Regarding animals, is it possible for World vets to draw a first toll for the missing, the dead? The number of deceased, missing or injured animals cannot be estimated at this time.

How many animals did you rescue up to now? That number is also difficult to estimate. The term "rescue" has been broadened to include animals removed from damaged buildings and animals found that escaped the damaged areas.

How many were badly injured, how many were in relative go health? The animals that escaped the disaster area did not have severe physical injuries (mostly minor scrapes or wounds, dehydration, etc). Since most were kept as pets (as opposed to feral) they were well cared for prior to the disaster and seemed in good body condition.

This famous video where a dog doesn't leave his friend has been seen worldwide, but it's obvious that the dog is deeply shocked and traumatized. Did you already observe post-traumatic stress and consequences on some animals you rescued ? What are the immediate actions for vet volunteers in such cases ? Some of the dogs and cats at the shelter in Sendai were nervous or anxious, but it is difficult to say if that is directly related to the disaster, or due to being separated from their families and living in a shelter. The Japanese veterinarian we worked with in Sendai, Dr. Sasaki, reported that he is seeing numerous animals with signs of "post-traumatic stress" in his work around the city. Human rescuers have encountered dogs and cats in the disaster area that were aggressive and difficult to approach, which again, may be due to separation from their families.

Could you describe me in a few words your rescue procedure ? How first aid is given, where the animals are kept after you pick them up, etc., and how are you working with the other rescue forces? The animals we worked with were either in a shelter or reunited with their families in an evacuation center. We met a dog with wounds on his legs that were able to be treated with antibiotics; Dr. Sasaki showed the owner how to keep the areas clean and how to administer antibiotics to prevent infection.
If the animals are not immediately reunited with their families, they are being cared for at the Sendai city shelter, where Dr. Sasaki can provide medical treatment if necessary. At this time, the Sendai shelter is able to accommodate all animals, however, they anticipate future need for space, food and supplies. JEARS has arranged to help the Sendai shelter by providing food, supplies and temporary housing in the Niigata shelter if necessary. World Vets will provide items such as food, cages, and medical supplies to JEARS and Dr. Sasaki so they can care for the animals in affected areas. World Vet's received generous donations from the Fondation Brigitte Bardot of Paris, France which are being used to support the work of Japanese veterinarians like Dr. Sasaki.

Did you manage to find back their masters for some of them ? Maybe some people knew where to find you and some found their pets back ?
The Sendai shelter is working tirelessly to reunite pets with their families. During our trip, communication and transportation were limited in Sendai, however, as the phone and fuel lines are repaired, it will be easier for people to contact/visit the shelter to look for their pets. We visited several evacuation centers and provided JEARS and Dr. Sasaki's information, so people can contact them for assistance and medical support.

You've been in Haiti last year. I don't know how long you stayed there, but you probably observed animals with deep post-traumatic stress and behavioral problems. How animals in general get over such traumatic events ? That is a difficult question to answer, since animals cannot verbalize their emotions. As disaster response teams, we have to be sensitive to the condition of the animals; many are aggressive or fearful because of stress, and require patient, skilled handling. Stress can be caused by lack of food/water, pain due to injuries, or because an animal is placed in a foreign environment such as a shelter. Providing safe shelter, food, water and veterinary care can alleviate the pain and stress of these animals.

Japanese people are known to love their pets. Did you observe such manifestations of love, joyful reunions, despair, mutual aid to find pets back ? The human-animal bond between the Japanese and their pets is very strong. We met a man, Kamata-san, at an evacuation center in Sendai who told us a very touching story about his dog. When he heard the tsunami warning, Kamata-san rushed to warn his neighbors. He tried to get back to his house to get his dog, Shane, but the tsunami was rapidly approaching and he was forced to seek higher ground. Kamata-san told us he had given up hope of ever seeing Shane again. About 6 hours after the tsunami, Kamata-san was at the evacuation center when a man told him there was a dog outside. He went outside to look, and it was Shane!
Shane had never been to the site of the evacuation center before, but his instincts lead him there. He swam through chest-high water to reach the shelter and reunite with Kamata-san.
Shane must have hung onto debris in the water, as he had wounds on both his elbows. Dr. Sasaki showed Kamata-san how to clean the wounds and gave him antibiotics to prevent infection. We were able to leave fuel with Dr. Sasaki, so he will return to check on Shane and ensure his wounds heal.

The so-called "anticipation sense" of animals, which would help them to flee before the coming of the disaster ("truth or legend", so to say). Since the South-east Asia tsunami in 2004, the debate has been launched, but there's no scientific evidence for such a thing. What is your opinion about that? I recommend the following books, which I found to be very insightful on this topic:
"The Emotional Lives of Animals" by Marc Bekoff and "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals" by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
While in Haiti, we worked with some soldiers with the United Nations army from Bolivia. Most of the soldiers had been stationed in Haiti for several months prior to the earthquake, and had an afternoon ritual of playing football on the army base field. During the months before the earthquake, the soldiers had rescued a small group of street dogs and were caring for them on the army base. The dogs would play on the football field in the afternoon with the soldiers, and on the afternoon of the earthquake, the soldiers reported the dogs had very strange behavior in the minutes before the earthquake - they began running in circles, barking and darting on and off the field. Moments later, the earthquake struck.
We heard similar stories from other people in Haiti - dogs running out of their homes moments before the earthquake struck, horses breaking through pasture fences, etc. In my experience, I believe there is some validity to the idea that animals can sense sudden changes preceding disasters. I feel these stories account for the lower number of animal fatalities (versus human fatalities), as animals may have a chance to flee before a disaster occurs.

Have you had any bad reactions, from people who think it's not important to save animals? In Japan (as well as Haiti), I encountered nothing but gratitude and positive support for our work. People consider their pets an extension of their family, and are grateful for rescue and veterinary services in this time of need.

Encountering/dealing with wildlife at all? With farm animals? I believe there was a recent report about a baby dolphin that was found in a rice patty and returned to the ocean, but we did not encounter any wildlife in Sendai. The veterinarian in Sendai, Dr. Sasaki, was concerned about the well-being of a local equestrian center, so we traveled to the beach area to see if there were any injured or lost horses. Unfortunately, the entire area was destroyed, including the barns, and we did not see any signs of the horses. Hopefully they were able to flee the area before the tsunami hit.

Are dogs (or other animals) assisting the rescue effort? There is now a very famous YouTube video of 2 dogs involved in a mutual rescue effort, but we did not witness any animal-facilitated rescues. However, I feel the animals are providing essential emotional healing and support to the people displaced by the disaster. People living in evacuation centers may have lost almost everything in their lives and feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Caring for an animal offers an opportunity to feel a sense of responsibility and purpose during this devastating time. Numerous studies have shown the simple act of brushing or petting a cat or dog has therapeutic effects on blood pressure, cardiac function and depression. In that sense, I feel the animals are critical to the rescue and support effort in Japan.

How large is the team? How many teams are there? How many vets are deployed? For how long? Our team consisted of 3 volunteers - myself (a veterinary technician with World Vets) and 2 volunteers from Animal Friends Niigata. Isabella Gallaon-Aoki is the founder and director of Animal Friends Niigata, and was the coordinator and translator of our trip to Sendai. Animal Friends Niigata is one of the 3 Japanese NGOs that comprises the Japanese Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support group (JEARS).
World Vets now has a Japanese-born veterinarian, Dr. Koji, who will be in Japan long-term to coordinate ongoing efforts with JEARS and Japanese animal welfare groups, and will provide direct veterinary care to animals in need. We are also collaborating with Dr. Kazumasu Sasaki, a Japanese veterinarian in Sendai, who is providing veterinary and rescue support to his community.

When/how will the mission be considered "over"/finished? NEVER!!! ;)
There is an initial rush of support (human and animal) following a disaster, however World Vets is currently planning for both short and long term support for the animals and people of Japan. Our generous corporate sponsors and private donors have responded with overwhelming generosity, enabling World Vets to provide support to the people and animals of Japan. Last week, World Vets shipped 13,000 pounds of dog and cat food to the Animal Friends Niigata shelter, and we have sent 2 shipments of veterinary supplies to Dr Sasaki in Sendai. World Vets is also working with Japanese and US military, JEARS and other Japanese animal rescue groups to help families leave Japan with their pets.
The structurally damage to cities like Sendai and radiation risks in areas like Fukushima make it difficult and dangerous to send large volunteer team to Japan. Even though many people would like to volunteer their help in Japan, the current need for volunteers is low. At this time, funding and supplies are in dire need, and World Vets is collecting donations to send to our colleagues in Japan.
World Vets will continue to support our veterinarian and friend Dr Sasaki in Sendai, and there is potential for long-term support through spay/neuter projects with his clinic.

What types of injuries/conditions are most common amongst the rescued animals? The most common injuries we saw were wounds associated with tsunami/earthquake debris. The animals were well-cared for prior to the disaster, were in good body condition and well fed. Dog breeds such as Shiba Inus and Akitas are also very common in Japan, and their thick warm coats helped them survive outside in the cold temperatures prior to being rescued.

Do they need or want volunteers, or would they just get in the way? (See prior question regarding short and long term support for Japan) At this time, World Vets has pledged to provide financial and veterinary support to Japan. There may be potential for volunteer trips or spay/neuter clinics in the future. Anyone interested in learning more about World Vets trips can visit the website ( and become a member.

Japan is widely hailed for their infrastructural preparedness for natural disasters. Have you seen examples of this helping animals to avoid injury or be more easily rescued? Or were animals overlooked in Japan's disaster preparation? What could be done to better prepare for future events?
Based on my experience in Haiti after the 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake, I feel the majority of the damage in Japan was due to the tsunami. Buildings and roads in the mainland area of Sendai (about 80 miles from the off-shore epicenter) were unaffected, but the coastal area completely destroyed. I believe the engineering and infrastructure throughout Japan contributed to the safety of the people and animals, and significantly reduced the human and animal mortality numbers.
Regarding disaster preparation, families can consider permanent identification (such as microchips or tattoos) for their pets, which will facilitate reuniting displaced animals and owners after a disaster. Families can also include leashes, crates or carriers in their family disaster preparedness kit, to facilitate evacuation with their animals.

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