Two Years Later – The Anniversary of the Tohoku/Fukushima Disaster and a Q & A With Jennifer Koca, Volunteer for Japan Cat Network

Today is the two year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan that resulted in killing some 19,000 people and triggered a devastating meltdown in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. More than a million homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged by the natural disaster and of the roughly 470,000 people who fled during the initial catastrophe, more than 315,000 people still live in temporary housing. It will be headline news around the world for the day and then the event will fade into nothing but a distant memory to be replaced by the next headline.

spot kitty

Incredible how beautiful this image is – but it is actually part of the “No Go Zone” affected by the Fukushima meltdown. You will note a cat in the middle of the picture that was part of trapping efforts by the Japan Cat Network to save. Photo courtesy of Jen Koca.

One such consequence of the disaster that I am trying to keep from fading away is the dire need to spread awareness about the plight of the animals, especially the cats who still need so much help.  As it was, prior to the disaster, cat overpopulation was already a problem. The Tohoku/Fukushima area of Japan is very rural  and communities were relatively ignorant about the necessity of spay/neuter. After the tsunami/meltdown, it became far worse as the streets were mixed with ferals, strays, and pets, all struggling to survive against the brutal elements, while still being able to procreate for the most part.

Jennifer with Joni who has since been adopted! Photo courtesy of Jen Koca/Japan Cat Network.

That is how it all began for me last year when I introduced you to Jennifer Koca, a 1st grade special education teacher from Herndon, VA, who was getting ready to move to Japan on March 20th  for a job she had lined up. After hearing about the devastating disaster, rather than let that deter her, she decided to come anyway and gave up her comfortable life with her family and friends so that she could be part of the relief effort for these suffering animals. Jennifer had reached out to me regarding one of the posts I did on the benefits of TNR to managing outdoor cat populations and I invited her to share her firsthand account about what it was like to uproot her life and  volunteer with  the Japan Cat Network (JCN) that was one of the primary advocacy organizations actively working to help save the cats and educate the community about spay/neuter.

cage trap

This the first cat Jen ever trapped and is aptly named “Kocha” after her. She is still at the shelter and while she is still nervous around people, she has been getting better and is now up for adoption. Photo courtesy of Jen Koca.

I did a series of post with Jennifer about her experience and was curious a year later – had things gotten better? The mainstream headlines are one thing, but I wanted to hear it from her firsthand – how was the recovery going since we last spoke and how were the cats? Jennifer very graciously agreed to a brief Q & A to get us all caught up since last year:

DB – Jennifer, when you first contacted me you told me that one of the biggest obstacles you faced every day was educating people about the importance of spay/neuter to reducing cat overpopulation. Do you feel people have become more accepting of the virtues of spay/neuter or is it still a struggle to get people to embrace the procedure?

JK - It’s definitely still an uphill battle to get people here to embrace that both strays and family pets should get fixed, but thanks to Japanese groups becoming more vocal about the issue since the disaster, it is getting easier. I have also noticed that a lot more people are willing to do it if it is very cheap or free, since it seems some people choose not to do it simply due to the insane costs most vets charge (usually around 40,000Y per pet, which equates to over 400.00$USD). Also, because most of the disaster area is very rural, many people had quite simply never heard of this as an option before.

Tsunami - cats in cage

These are just some of the many cats that Japan Cat Network has saved. Photo courtesy of Jen Koca/Japan Cat Network.

DB - Are there still lots of homeless cats on the streets or has the problem become more manageable?

JK - In the evacuated areas there are still thousands of cats wandering the streets, but it has become a bit more manageable due to the TNR efforts and because many of the cats died because they could not survive the harsh Tohoku climate.

Tsunami -5 kitten

These are two of five kittens born by a cat named Mocha who had to be relinquished by her owner who could not care for her. Photo courtesy of Jen Koca/Japan Cat Network.

DB - Have a lot of cats been reunited with owners that they had become separated from after the tsunami?

JK - Thousands of animals have been reunited since the disaster and JCN has been a part of that, but the saddest part is that many of the owners who do find their pets, still have to relinquish them. This is because they don’t have a home for themselves either and that is quite possibly the most depressing part of the entire disaster. A few areas made international headlines and managed to acquire vast amounts of donations and have almost entirely rebuilt. Meanwhile, there are still over 100,000 people in the Fukushima area alone, living in temporary housing, stuck waiting for the government. There has not yet been a single permanent structure rebuilt in the two years that have passed and now officials are saying it could be 6 to 10 years before all are resettled.

Tsunami -kitten-yellow lady-2

This image is of a local woman with several kittens from a litter she had bottle fed and raised. Good news – she ended up adopting 2 of them! Photo courtesy of Jen Koca/Japan Cat Network.

DB – What is the best way people can help you help the cats?

JK - Donations and awareness is definitely what we need the most help with. It is really heartbreaking how many people I talk with who do not even remember the Fukushima disaster even happened. To a lot of people overseas, it was just another passing story and once it faded from the headlines, it also faded from their memories. Financial donations are needed now more than ever, because so many people have either run out of resources they can offer, or have simply forgotten about us. There is honestly not a lot to go around now between groups. Food and monetary donations are vital for this to ever become manageable, because a constant TNR program and feeding teams to help capture the tame animals and care for the ferals are the keys to making all of this work.

Tsunami -food

Food and donations are always needed to keep the Japan Cat Network operational. Photo courtesy of Jen Koca/Japan Cat Network.

It is also important to remember that a number of the animals located in shelters here do have families still and groups such as Japan Cat Network are here to safely watch them until those families are finally prepared to take back their loved ones – but all of this costs money to maintain.

I thank Jennifer for her honest and heartfelt account of the situation in Japan. She is absolutely correct, headlines come and go, but for the people that live behind the words, they have to go on and they cannot afford to be forgotten. I know so much of us love and care for cats and the wish for their well-being goes far beyond our own communities. For those of us that can donate to JCN, however large or small the amount, it would be greatly appreciated. I also want to thank Jennifer and all the volunteers in Japan who are working so tirelessly to help the cats. Jennifer has recently resigned from her job and in 2 weeks will become a full time volunteer for JCN and will be living at the shelter until her savings money runs thin.

If you were not able to read the series I did last year featuring Jennifer and her insights on the cats in the aftermath of the tsunami and would like to learn more, please see below links:

A Year Later – The Japan Disasters and the Surviving Cats – Part 1: Introduction

A Year Later – The Japan Disasters and the Surviving Cats – Part 2:  Cultural Reality

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  1. Mr Puddy says:

    Kudos to Jennifer for all hard works she has done .
    Thanks to her for put lots of afford to help all poor kitties

  2. Deb it is so hard to believe it has been TWO years. Seems like it was just yesterday. Jen should be commended…she gave up a comfortable life and followed through with her plans of moving to Japan, even after such devastation.
    It is nice to know that some positive changes have been made and there are some good outcomes…..but this just broke my heart “but the saddest part is that many of the owners who do find their pets, still have to relinquish them. This is because they don’t have a home for themselves either and that is quite possibly the most depressing part of the entire disaster”

    Kudos to Jen for all that she does and thank you for sharing.

    • Deb says:

      Caren – it is hard to believe that two years have gone by. It is also good to know that some progress has been made, especially in terms of educating the local people about the vital need of spay/neuter. It really is heartbreaking that so many people had to relinquish their pets, but so many of the facilities set up for temporary housing do not allow animals and these poor people had no other option.

  3. jeneko says:

    Thank you again for covering this cause, and the true people that need commending are the incredibly strong locals who have persevered through all of this and rarely complain about it.
    がんばれ福島!がんばれ東北!がんばれ日本!

    Btw, the main website is currently down for maintenance while we revamp things, but if anyone wants to donate, you can go here: http://japancatnet.com/donation/

    • Deb says:

      You are so right, Jen – the locals are amazing and I do commend them. But, without people like you, they would have to suffer even more and I am grateful for the dedication of all involved who help the cause, no matter how small or large the effort.

  4. sue brandes says:

    Thank her and the other volunteers that help these kitties. They are amazing people.

  5. mariodacat says:

    What a wonderful series. Bless you and the others for keeping the news of the animals in Japan in the forefront here at home.

  6. Thank-you for this. It’s easy to forget when life speeds by so fast with a disasters du jour. The real work of rescue is ongoing. Shared with <3

    • Deb says:

      That is for sure Layla – when it comes to rescue, time, love, funding, and devotion is always needed, no matter where the circumstances if an animal is in need.

  7. meowmeowmans says:

    Thank you for this update on the situation in the area affected by the Tsunami and the Fukushima meltdown. It breaks my heart to know the government there is so slow to move on things, and that the people and kitties suffer because of that. I am so grateful for Jen and the other folks working so hard to make a change there.

    • Deb says:

      meowmeowmans… the government will gloss over much of the situation to the mainstream world – that’s why it’s important to talk to someone who is in the trenches who can give a much more realistic account of the situation…

  8. CATachresis says:

    She’s done amazing work! It is true that once the media/cameras have left a disaster area, especially when it’s not in the west, people just forget!! :( Remember Haiti?

    • Deb says:

      CATachresis – Yes, Haiti… and here in the states, people are still feeling the effects of Katrina from years ago as well as other disasters. I guess that’s how it is, but we do have to try to keep the memory alive as best we can…

  9. It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since the Japan disaster. We remember it and how sad we were for all the animals. We are so thankful that there are peeps like Jen that helped them.

  10. Penelope says:

    Great Article and thanks for reminding us about this disaster!