Excruciating deaths awaited many household pets abandoned in the forced evacuation from Fukushima Prefecture following last year's nuclear emergency.
And while activists made efforts to keep animals alive by transporting food into the no-entry zone around the stricken nuclear plant, they have come into conflict with local authorities who insist that these groups have no right to enter the area.
Some evacuated residents also show concern over stray dogs and cats getting into their homes for pet food activists delivered and causing havoc.
Things recently came to a head in the town of Namie, part of the no-entry zone surrounding the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Residents who evacuated to temporary shelters were not allowed to take their pets with them.
Not surprisingly, many animals starved to death. Livestock fared no better.
Town authorities began clamping down on access from November to stop those groups defying the no-entry zone restrictions.
It accused members of illegally entering the no-entry zone, often under the guise of business operators who are authorized to go there.
The central government and the municipality insist it is their responsibility to care for the animals.
A member of the animal welfare group admitted that it "illegally obtained a permit to enter (the zone), thanks to the cooperation of residents."
The group says it has been acting at the behest of residents who are anxious about the pets they had to leave behind. The group delivers some 700 kilograms of pet food each week, distributing it by roadsides and in homes in the hope of reaching as many animals as possible.
The group reckons it is caring for 200 or so cats and dogs.
The tab for so much pet food runs into hundreds of thousands of yen a month, a sum that a member said is covered by donations from supporters across the nation.
On two occasions, members of the group were caught by police in the no-entry zone and had to offer a written apology.
"Officials at town hall know full well that we get requests from residents to search for pets," a member of the group said. "The town's efforts at caring for these pets are insufficient. I pray that the authorities will draw up rules that allow private organizations to do something about this situation."
But not all evacuees embrace the efforts by animal welfare groups.
The town has received more than 10 complaints from townspeople.
One individual complained that "with pet food being left inside the house, animals came in and trashed the place."
According to a town official, some organizations enter the no-entry zone using a permit given to business operators.
Town authorities started restricting use of the entrance permit on Nov. 1. It had previously issued permits without running background checks. So long as the paperwork was in order, it kept issuing permits.
The new policy requires town officials to telephone the businesses in question and discuss their activities in detail. It is intended to ensure that outsiders do not visit the no-entry zone unless they are accompanied by Namie residents or local business operators.
The town of Tomioka, which also lies in the no-entry zone surrounding the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, also has had its share of complaints from residents, an official said.
Town authorities are working on steps to contain the problem.
The Environment Ministry and the Fukushima prefectural government are tasked with caring for the animals in the no-entry zone. They say they cared for 895 dogs and cats between April 2011 and Oct. 2 this year.
Last December, the ministry allowed 16 animal welfare organizations to spend a month in the no-entry zone to carry out their activities.
"We feel sorry for the animals left behind and we, too, want to rescue them," said a prefectural official handling the problem. "I wish they would leave the job of caring for the animals to the (prefectural) government."
But not all evacuees are happy with the way the authorities have handled the problem.
A 28-year-old evacuee managed to have her three pets rescued with the help of an animal welfare organization.
She said she approached the group for help after she found out local government officials were too slow to make a move.
"There is no way that animals can be rescued if we keep waiting for the government to respond," she said. "It is strange that pets have no protection unless private citizens take some sort of risk."
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