On March 11th, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced three nuclear meltdowns, initiated by the tsunami that followed the Tōhoku earthquake. This catastrophic event was the most significant nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. When most people think about the Fukushima disaster, they are rightly concerned with the human cost. About 18,500 people perished as a result, thousands of people lost their homes, and the chances of developing cancer, particularly thyroid cancer, are high for survivors.
What many people don't think about is the wildlife affected by Fukushima. The animals in Fukushima not only faced the same risks that humans did, but many of them were not evacuated and were simply left to die. Some groups like the Nyander Guard Animal Shelter and a loose collection of farmers, as well as individuals like Naoto Matsumura, are stepping up to help these Fukushima disaster animals. While others, like the Japanese government itself, are attempting to have some of these radioactive euthanized in order to reduce contamination in the area. There's a lot that we can learn from the animals living in Fukushima. These special radioactive animals are truly interesting creatures.
The story of Naoto Matsumura is the story of a true hero. Matsumura was a resident of Tomioka, a town in Fukushima that was evacuated in the wake of the nuclear disaster. At first, Matsumura did attempt to evacuate. But later he was rejected by family who feared contamination, and he wasn't satisfied with the conditions of the refugee camps. He headed back to his family's farm in Tomioka to see what had become of it. When he arrived, he found a bleak wasteland utterly devoid of human life - but teeming with animals who were left behind.
Despite the personal danger involved, Matsumura decided to dedicate his life to caring for these animals. His charges include a variety of animals, including dogs, cats, cows, ducks, ostrich, pigs, and a pony. One particular animal, a dog, had been locked in a shed for over a year, and had only survived by eating the flesh of a cow who had passed away in there with him. Thanks to Matsumura, the dog became healthy and happy.
Matsumura claimed he isn't worried about what might happen to him as a result of living in a radioactive zone. He said he was worried about getting cancer or leukemia at first, but doctors assured him that would not happen for 30 or 40 years. As of 2017, he plans to spend the rest of his life caring for the animals of Fukushim - a goal which you can support through donations.
Once the people of Fukushima evacuated, wild boars descended from the mountains and took over the area. In coastal towns like Namie and Tomioka, the boars strut through the streets, forage for food, and sometimes attack the humans who are attempting to return to their homes. According to Namie's mayor Tamotsu Baba, “It is not really clear now which is the master of the town, people or wild boars. If we don’t get rid of them and turn this into a human-led town, the situation will get even wilder and uninhabitable.”
In March 2017, an evacuation order for the area was scheduled to be lifted. Violent boars ruling the town made it difficult, if not impossible, for the people of Fukushima to resettle peacefully. The humans aren't taking it lying down, though. Squads of hunters are setting up cage traps that use rice flour for bait, and shooting boars with air rifles. A single squad, led by Shoichiro Sakamoto, has captured over 300 boars so far. Despite these efforts, the radioactive wild boars seem determined to continue living in the towns.
Nyander Guard is a no-kill animal shelter set up to accommodate animals who were lost or left behind in Fukushima after the disaster. In all, about 20,000 animals were left behind. Early rescue efforts with spearheaded by Akira Honda, a 52-year-old businessman from Fukushima who called for volunteers. These volunteers often had to sneak past police barricades to get back into the radioactive area. After a few volunteers were detained, these missions became a lot more difficult. Nyander Guard was a government sponsored solution. They have rescued around 750 cats and dogs, including a cat named Kevin Costner.
Unfortunately, finding people to adopt these animals has been a challenge. Not only are people wary about exposure to radiation, adopting animals from shelters isn't a common practice in Japan. Usually, when people want pets, they buy them from pet shops. Also, because the Fukushima disaster wasn't particularly recent, donations to their GoFundMe page have slowed to a crawl. These donations are desperately needed, especially for the cats, many of which are suffering from serious health problems as a result of the radiation.
According to a study conducted by Tim Mousseau, a professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, the bird population near Fukushima has been in freefall ever since the nuclear disaster. After conducting 2,400 bird counts and gathering data on 57 different species, Mousseau and his team determined that 30 of these species were experiencing sharp declines in their population. The effect was more pronounced for resident birds like the carrion crow and the Eurasian tree sparrow, and less so for migratory birds who did not arrive in the area until some of the radiation had dissipated.
Some birds who are still alive are growing white patches in their feathers. Mousseau believes the white patches are caused by radiation-induced oxidative stress, but his opponents disagree, claiming the low doses of radiation in Fukushima aren't enough to cause this, and the white patches are part of the normal molting cycle.