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 died 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.
Naoto Matsumura, The Guardian Of Fukushima’s Animals
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.
Radioactive Wild Boars Get Aggressive With Humans Trying To Move Back In
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.
The Cats And Dogs At Nyander Guard, A Fukushima No-Kill Shelter
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.
Bird Populations In Fukushima Are Dropping
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.
Butterflies Affected By Radiation Have Birth Defects
Butterflies in Fukushima have proven to be uniquely sensitive to radiation. A study led by Joji Otaki, a biologist at University of the Ryukyus in Nishihara, Japan, showed butterflies and butterfly larvae who were fed radiation-drenched leaves experienced high levels of physical abnormalities such as short forewings, and survival rates compared to butterflies who were given leaves unaffected by radiation. This affect occurred at multiple levels of radiation, including levels previously thought to be low enough not to do any damage. This sounds pretty grim, but there is hope – Otaki’s findings also indicate butterflies that eat contaminated leaves and survive will probably develop a tolerance that will help them survive the low levels of radiation. Which is good, since that will likely persist in Fukushima over the next several decades.
Tim Mousseau warns that humans shouldn’t extrapolate about the effects of radiation on humans based on what happened to the butterflies. Humans, he claims, are less sensitive to radiocontaminants than butterflies are.
Yuko Sugimoto, a resident of Namie, a town just outside of the 18-mile exclusion zone surrounding the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, is a rabbit breeder who discovered something strange in her rabbit hutch during the spring of 2011. On May 7, a rabbit was born with no ears. In addition to being earless, the rabbit also had albinism, or a lack of melanin, which gave it white fur and red eyes.
Born only two months after the nuclear disaster, this rabbit symbolized the havoc the radiation could cause. The rabbit’s birth coincided with an announcement from Tokyo Electric, which stated seawater samples 150 miles north of Tokyo contained levels of radioactive strontium around 240 times the legal limit. Those levels were also found in the groundwater near two damaged nuclear reactors. While it was never proven that Ms. Sugimoto’s rabbit’s earlessness was caused by radiation, images of the rabbit still stirred up fears about what kinds of birth defects might occur in humans.
The Horses Of Minamisōma Thrive Despite Being Left To Die
Minamisōma, a Fukushima city, has a 10-centuries old tradition called the Soma Nomaoi (“chasing wild horses”) festival. Until the Fukushima disaster made the city uninhabitable, the festival was held on a yearly basis to honor the contributions that horses have made to humanity. After being forced to evacuate, rancher Shinichiro Tanaka returned to find his horses dead or starving. The Japanese government ordered Tanaka to slaughter the remaining horses, but he refused to do so. Instead, he nursed them back to health with help from director Yoju Matsubayashi, who documented the experience and created a documentary film called The Horses of Fukushima.
Contaminated Salmon Made Their Way To The West Coast Of The US
After the 2011 disaster, people from around the world became concerned the contaminated water that seeped into the Pacific Ocean would spread. This fear wasn’t completely unfounded. In 2016, salmon containing caesium 134 particles, a radioactive substance known as the “fingerprint of Fukushima,” were found 6,000 miles away from the site of the disaster, off the coast of Oregon. The same particles were also found in the Tillamook Bay and Gold Beach in Oregon.
While this sounds terrifying, it actually isn’t that bad. According to Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the levels found were too low to be harmful. In an interview with USA Today, he said: “To put it in context, if you were to swim everyday for six hours a day in those waters for a year, that additional radiation from the addressed cesium from Japan… is 1000 times smaller than one dental x-ray.”
Meanwhile, sea life around Fukushima seems to be doing just fine. Despite radioactive materials being dumped into the water, aquatic populations have remained relatively constant, and significant mutations have not been observed. This is probably because the ocean currents dispersed the toxic waste before it could have a serious impact on the ocean’s population. That said, radiation is still leaking into the ocean, and the true impact on sea life is still unknown.
A Group Of “Nuclear” Cattle Still Live On Their Farms, Despite Being Radioactive
Nuclear Cattle, a documentary by filmmaker Tamotsu Matsubara, tells the story of a group of six farmers who return to their hometowns in Fukushima a few times a week in order to care for their livestock. Like the horses of Minamisōma, these cattle were exposed to radiation, and the Japanese government asked farmers to euthanize their animals. This group of farmers refused to do so, and continued to care for their cattle at their own expense, despite the fact the animals could no longer be sold due to the contamination.
While the farmers originally kept these cows alive out of affection, the cows now serve another important purpose. In 2013, 2013, Keiji Okada, an animal science expert at Iwate University, began doing research on the cows. While they got some information about the impact of radiation on animals like birds and insects, researchers know very little about how it impacts large mammals. Okada and his colleagues hope these cows will add to humanity’s store of knowledge.
Japanese Macaques Have Abnormal Blood Levels In Fukushima
The surviving Japanese macaques near Fukushima might look like any other macaques, but underneath their skin is something very troubling. Scientists discovered the macaques in that area have lower red and white blood cell levels, which could leave them prone to more serious infections. While scientists debate whether this is directly due to the radiation, there’s no doubt their blood levels are extremely abnormal.