As the fourth anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan approaches, I once again find myself grateful for another year helping in Tohoku, and for our continuing presence in Inawashiro. I love our little shelter there, and I am so proud of the wonderful people that work together to keep it going! This past weekend expanded our team and found us helping cows AND cats! I've recently returned to work teaching away from the shelter, so for me, this meant a chance for a road trip to Fukushima. I couldn't have asked for better car companions, a better soundtrack, or better winter scenery! Highway service areas provided the usual helpful information :-) I think I laughed more along this trip than I have in a long time!
At our shelter in Inawashiro, we met up with Jim, our long-time and much-appreciated volunteer from the military, who had just brought up an amazing amount of donated food and supplies for the shelter volunteers. His experience as "The Transporter" includes a pickup and transfer of 80 chickens, which we had taken care of for 5 months in a restricted area of Fukushima! On this day, he was not only here to feed the volunteers, he was also here to help bring some hay to hungry cows.
We first stopped at a farm near Nihonmatsu, to pick up bales of hay and to meet the kind farmer (also evacuated, himself) who was donating the hay. His cows, all lined up in the barn having their morning breakfast, were beautiful! We had a chat with the people on the farm, while the bales were loaded onto the trucks.
Then it was off to the coast with the load of hay. Our destination was the hard-hit town of Okuma. Completely evacuated, the government recently opened select areas for residents to return. However very few have actually done that, and the area still resembles a ghost town. We drove by damaged and vacant buildings, through empty streets, and into the countryside. The area where the cows we came to help are currently living, is one that is still only accessible by former residents. So we had to wait just outside the gate as others brought the hay to the cows. There are still livestock in many of the evacuated areas trying to survive with the kind help of individuals, groups, and dedicated farmers. I have witnessed the heroic but heartbreaking acts that these poor farmers have had to suffer through, as a result of the disaster in Fukushima. Their determination to continue to care for farm animals, despite the incredible hurdles, is nothing short of amazing. Keeping large animals like cows fed and healthy on an ongoing basis is not an easy task. It requires help from volunteer veterinarians, such as the compassionate vet along with us on this day. The cows that we had come to help feed have all been sterilized and will not be killed--two significant factors. But they had only eaten bamboo leaves for the past 2 weeks, cut for them daily by a kind and hard working woman. The transport of hay into evacuated areas to feed cows is a very difficult matter. Where there may be a truck, there is not a driver. Where there may be a driver, there is not donated hay. But, on this day it all came together! It was wonderful for everyone to know that hay would soon be there for the cows to feast on!! The farm helpers took some pictures of the cows enjoying additional treats that Jim brought them from the base--lettuce, and other veggies!
As we waited, we heard some roosters crowing and we walked down the road to see a coop located not far from the roadblock. There were 5 roosters inside, with some food and dirty water. They eagerly came to the fence to see us. We have no idea who is trying to tend to them, but it felt sad to see them so friendly and without any people nearby to interact with. Having cared for chickens, I now realize how much like cats and dogs they can be, when it comes to bonding with humans. We looked around at other pens, now empty and unused. I tried to hope for the best for these beautiful roosters.
While waiting on the roadside, we also got a chance to meet up with the woman who goes weekly to feed animals still coming to feeding stations that we set up nearly 4 years ago. She showed us two friendly cats that she caught at two of these stations this week. I put a gloved finger into one of the carriers and the kitty responded by mewing in a friendly voice! I could see from her teeth that she was not young and was born before 2011. How is it possible, I thought, that she has survived so long all alone without her human companions? I know the location that she came from well. Our Sarah at the shelter came from there, and this kitty looks enough like her to possibly be related. Then I thought about the food that we put out there week after week, and that continues to be given. I know that this is why she's here and was able to wait for her turn to come out to safety. It's not over. I don't know when it will be over, but we have to keep supporting feeding and rescue efforts in these areas! There are more kitties just like these two, waiting and depending on our help.
Our last destination was a small individually run shelter in a nearby area, also completely evacuated and in the twenty kilometer zone, with more than 36 cats and one dog. We first stopped to talk with the shelter's owner while she was at work, earning money to support the shelter. There are individuals all over Japan doing this...they work at jobs all day and then come home at night to care for a large number of rescued animals. They have little to no support and are often harassed or thought poorly of by local residents (who conversely also dump unwanted pets on their doorsteps). Many of these are strong and big-hearted women and men, pioneers of the grassroots animal welfare movement here in Japan. Though the shelters they've started are not perfect, they are at least a start, and they hold the hope of a future of community-based shelters all over Japan. I believe that they could be so much more effective with even a small helping hand, and this is Japan Cat Network's primary mission--Helping People Help Pets! On this day, we did little more than play with the cats (volunteer Steve also managed a mini kitty grooming project!) and give them some affection. But, we hope to schedule our next volunteer group project at this shelter and look forward to helping this dedicated woman continue her work to help cats in an evacuated area of Fukushima.
After a long day, we headed back to the shelter to reflect and also to be comforted by some doggie and kitty cuddles! There is much to feel sad about when visiting the disaster effected areas, and much to worry about regarding an uncertain future. But more importantly, there is also so very much to be thankful for! The fact that so many animal heroes have come together and manage to continue to fight to care for animals in evacuated areas, despite waning support, is awe inspiring. My determination to do what I can to help is renewed. Looking at the cheerful faces of the young volunteers at our shelter, having come so far from places all over the world to help, I feel sure that I'm not alone in that.
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