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Wandering through Japan’s evacuation zone is like stumbling across a forgotten ghost town.
There is no power or water. Few people.
“It’s a strange feeling,” Chizue Lister, 39, said after returning Sunday from her 10-day quest to rescue abandoned pets in the area surrounding the Fukushima power plant.
But in addition to the truckloads of workers heading to the damaged nuclear facility, there are signs of life.
The White Rock resident saw black cows roaming empty streets in search of food.
“When they see us, they come running to us, to me, like a dog,” Lister said, noting they’d block the road, waiting for water.
She also came across 70 tied-up dairy cows. Lister thought they were merely carcasses, until some spotted her, and began making desperate noises. She realized about 20 were still alive, some struggling to stand and others shaking on the ground, looking up at her.
“When they saw me, they started begging us,” she said. “That was the first day. I was shocked and cried.”
Lister said she would have helped, if not for the farmers who require their livestock to die naturally in order to receive insurance compensation. She hopes awareness is raised of the cattle’s plight after video filmed by a Japanese friend is posted on YouTube.
While farm animals were difficult to aid, Lister said she had more success with dogs.
Upon leaving White Rock for her home country April 7, she was most prepared to deal with pets, having packed leashes, collars and dishes. She didn’t waste any time after arriving at her parents’ house in Niigata at 11 p.m. that first day. She left the following morning at 4 a.m. and drove 3½ hours to Fukushima, where people within a 20-kilometre radius from the power plant have been evacuated due to radiation.
On April 12, Japan raised the severity rating of it nuclear situation to the same level of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Most shelters for evacuated residents don’t allow animals, so many who left pets behind aren’t able to retrieve them, Lister said. Only evacuees with vehicles can drive back to check on their companions.
So, wearing painter’s coveralls, a mask and gloves, Lister set off to feed and relocate deserted pets. She met her friend from Tokyo and three acquaintances in the evacuation zone – about 10 villages.
“The area is so big,” Lister said, noting animals weren’t hard to find. “It’s very easy to find them. Animals are everywhere, dogs are everywhere... It was hard to catch them. Some dogs were very aggressive. Some dogs, we had to chase them.”
The group soon learned to feed the emaciated animals slowly.
“We had food, but then when we feed the dog – they’re very skinny and starving – so after it eats the food, it pukes. Every time. Every dog does that because they’re so starving… they can’t stop eating.”
The dogs they caught were driven by Lister’s friend to Tokyo shelters and vets. The six-hour trip was made four times.
Lister stayed and searched on her own. Some evacuees gave addresses in hopes their pets could be aided. She would often locate the house to find the animal already dead.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s so sad, because (one) dog had a leash on it and the water was right there, but he couldn’t reach the water.”
But there were happy endings, too.
One evacuee staying in Tokyo asked the volunteers to look for her dog who had been left chained outside. The dog was found alive, and Lister reunited it with the woman.
“We (brought) the dog to her. She just started crying,” Lister said. “But that’s one dog, right? I want everyone to meet their owner.”
Lister said she found five dogs for owners, and caught another 11.
It was not unusual to come across chained dogs who were well-fed, as other volunteers – Lister saw about 50 while there – are leaving food and water for them.
While most dogs wandered in packs, there were some who refused to leave their homes. Lister recalled one that continually fought off other dogs from its owners’ property.
“He tried to save the house. The last time I saw him, he had a big scar on his leg.”
The closest Lister went to the nuclear plant was within three kilometres, when she visited a farm with 500 caged pigs. She released the less than 100 that were still alive.
“They just need water, that’s why they’re dying,” she said. “They started digging like mad because they think they can smell the water there, but the water had stopped.”
The volunteers made numerous trips to a nearby river in an attempt to hydrate them.
When Lister went through a screening afterwards, radiation was detected on her boots. The rest of her body tested negative.
In all, she went through screening twice. Working days that stretched to 7 p.m. meant she often didn’t make it to the detection stations before they closed at 5 p.m.
For one of her screenings, she brought a dog found five kilometres from the plant. The canine – in the area for more than a month – was checked for radiation. “He was OK.”
Lister would usually return to her parents’ house in the evening, but stayed overnight in the evacuation zone twice. At one point, workers at the nuclear plant spotted her. They helped her find addresses and gave her better protective clothing.
Radiation wasn’t the only danger. Lister said she felt 20 earthquakes in 10 days, and a 6.5-magnitude quake that
triggered a tsunami warning hit while she was in Fukushima.
“My friend texted me and said, ‘run, run away.’ So we drove as fast as we (could).”
Despite the risks, Lister said the efforts are worthwhile. And it seems others agree.
Lister returned to her husband, Kelly, and her restaurant, Yucca Tree Café, to find strangers who had read her story in Peace Arch News offering to donate or help fundraise.
“I’m very surprised and I’m happy because Canadian people are so nice,” she said. “I want to tell everybody about this, then the Japanese government can do something about the animals.”
Lister hasn’t yet ruled out a return to the evacuation zone, where her friend is continuing to volunteer.
Kelly, who acknowledges he wasn’t thrilled about Lister’s first trip, said nothing will stop her if she decides to go back.
“If she said she’s going again, I’ll say no again, but she won’t listen this time, either.”