On March 11, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami destroyed entire communities on the coast of northeastern Japan, killing over 15,000 people. Close to 5,000 are still lost in the rubble or the sea. After the destruction triggered a radioactive leak at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Prime Minister Naoto Kan immediately declared a voluntary evacuation zone 20 kilometers in radius around the plant. An estimated 10,000 registered dogs and an unknown number of unregistered companion animals were reluctantly left by fleeing owners. Abandoned farm animals numbered well over half a million, with 630,000 chickens, 30,000 pigs, and 3,500 cattle. For the next several weeks, desperate farmers and pet owners braved the radiation threat, returning to feed and care for the animals they had left behind. On April 22 the Japanese government enacted a strict “do not enter” policy, prohibiting the 80,000 residents from re-entering the evacuation zone. In mid-May, when residents were finally granted temporary retrieval access, many pet owners and farmers returned to find their animals starved to death—and some cannibalized.
After months of pressure from Diet of Japan members and local government officials, as well as recommendations from animal advocacy groups in and outside of Japan (including AWI), the national government authorized euthanasia for the remaining debilitated livestock to prevent further suffering. With international assistance, passionate Diet members and animal advocates established Japan's first farm animal sanctuary on July 27. Though too late for the countless lives that were lost, this measure is a symbolic and significant step for the often forgotten animal victims of disasters, and a poignant reminder of the need for emergency relief planning for people and animals alike.