The 3/11 kitten that wasn’t

The “forbidden life” of those caring for abandoned animals in Fukushima

By Linda Pentz Gunter

For a while, it was an iconic photo of the March 11, 2011 triple disaster in Japan. The bedraggled, mud-soaked kitten clinging to a boot, practically begging to be rescued. The picture was everywhere on the internet. Had the kitten been caught in the tsunami? Was it a victim of the earthquake? Or was it one of the many abandoned animals left behind when more than 160,000 people fled the radioactivity released by the deadly Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster?

Simple internet searches yielded no apparent source for the photo. It fell into an unspoken rights-free virtual world where many of us used it to exemplify the desperation of Japan’s triple tragedy.

And then it turned out that the kitten wasn’t in Japan at all. Thanks to some shoe-leather sleuthing by a site called, we learned that the picture was actually taken during flooding in Hoi An, Vietnam. (And no, the boot man didn’t take the kitten with him, but his explanation can be found here.)

Of course countless animals like this kitten were indeed abandoned in Japan due to the natural disasters and the forced exile of those living too close to the stricken nuclear plant. Some international rescue groups did go in to try to help, but early on found conditions and access restrictions challenging if not prohibitive.

However, there were also individuals and groups in Japan who were not willing to sit back and watch animals starve. In addition to the rescue operations, a spay-neuter organization began work to prevent the inevitable proliferation of pets who, if they had survived at all, had now become strays. Shelters were eventually built with funds donated by supporters.

But there were some, chronicled in several remarkable films, who either never left, or who quickly returned to Fukushima Prefecture, with one sole purpose in mind: to look after the animals. Their charges soon multiplied and for some, it has become a full-time vocation.

In a 2013 ITN short news segment, we are introduced to 58-year old Keigo Sakamoto, who had already established an animal sanctuary in Nahara, just over 12 miles from the Fukushima plant. He was one who refused the order to evacuate, then found himself completely trapped within the zone, cut off from supplies. He survives on the generosity of individuals and stores outside the zone where he regularly collects discarded food and other supplies essential to keeping his animals — and himself — alive.

Then there are farmers who returned to save their livestock. One such, 53-year old Naoto Matsumura, is featured in the 18-minute Vice documentary, Alone in the Zone. He lives in what was then the ghost town of Tomioka — whose station reopening story we featured last week. But Matsumura could not accept the idea that dogs, cows, goats, ducks and even ostriches should be cast off without a care.

At first he evacuated with his family, fearing all the reactors were going to blow. But when his family faced rejection by relatives who said they were “contaminated”, and the hassle of evacuation shelters became unendurable, he returned home alone. And stayed. “I couldn’t leave the animals behind,” he said. “I am opposed to killing off the animals in the zone.”

Feeding them, and refusing to sign the “death warrant” requirement from the government, will, he hopes, spare them from slaughter. “So many of their fellow cattle died in pain,” he said, recalling the tragedy of cows left in barnes to starve. “To me, animals and people are equal.”

Which brings us back to cats. There is a delightful photo sequence of Matsumura, taken by photographer Ota Yasusuke, featuring the kittens the farmer adopted and befriended who have now become his steadfast companions.

Another film, Nuclear Cattle, recalls the agonizing end endured by so many livestock, and is hard to watch. It includes disturbing images of dead cows, their heads stooped into empty feed buckets.  (You are duly forewarned.) The unnamed cattle farmer in the 5-minute trailer rails against the same law that Matsumura is defying — that all exposed cattle must be slaughtered, even though they would never be used for human consumption. He and other cattle farmers rebel. “The government tells us to kill cows we take care of with affection,” says one.

Those farmers who do give up, bring flowers and incense to the burial sites where their slaughtered cows are deposited. They tell a reporter they are “heartbroken.” Others who keep going notice strange physical symptoms on their cows that they feel cannot be explained other than by exposure to radiation. All of these animals, and the people who tend to them, are living what Nuclear Cattle calls a “forbidden life.”

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