The man who saves forgotten cats in Fukushima’s nuclear zone

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) – A decade ago, Sakae Kato stayed behind to rescue cats abandoned by neighbors who fled the clouds of radiation burping from the nearby Fukushima nuclear power plant. He will not go.

Sakae Kato lies in bed next to Charm, a cat he rescued five years ago and infected with the feline leukemia virus, in his home in a restricted area in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 20, 2021. Kato is looking after 41 Cats in his house and another empty building on his property. A decade ago, he stayed behind to rescue cats abandoned by neighbors who fled the radiation clouds burping from the nearby Fukushima nuclear power plant. He will not go. “I want to make sure I’m here to take care of the last one,” said Kato. “After that, I want to die, be it a day or an hour later.” REUTERS / Kim Kyung-Hoon

“I want to make sure I’m here to take care of the last one,” he said of his home in the contaminated quarantine area. “After that, I want to die, be it a day or an hour later.”

So far, he has buried 23 cats in his garden, the most recent graves to have been disturbed by wild boars roaming the depopulated community. He takes care of 41 others in his home and another empty building on his property.

Kato leaves food for feral cats in a storage shed, which he heats with a paraffin oven. He saved a dog too, Pochi. Without running water, he has to fill bottles from a nearby mountain spring and drive to public toilets.

The 57-year-old, a small previous-life contractor, said his decision to stay with 160,000 other people evacuating the area was partly fueled by the shock of finding dead pets in abandoned homes he was demolishing helped.

The cats also gave him a reason to stay on land that has belonged to his family for three generations.

“I don’t want to go, I like to live in these mountains,” he said, standing in front of his house, which he is allowed to visit, but technically not allowed to sleep.

The two-story wooden structure is in poor condition.

Rotten floorboards sag. It’s riddled with holes where wall panels and roof tiles that kept the rain out were shaken by a powerful earthquake last month, bringing back frightening memories of the devastating March 11, 2001 quake that resulted in a tsunami and meltdown.

“It could be another two or three years. The walls have started to tilt, ”said Kato.

Decontamination in fields near his home signals that other residents will be allowed to return soon.

He estimates he spends $ 7,000 a month on his animals, part of it to buy dog ​​food for wild boars that gather near his home at sunset. Farmers consider them pests and also accuse them of destroying empty homes.

On February 25, Kato was arrested on suspicion of releasing wild boars caught in traps set up by the Japanese government in November. At the time of this writing, he was still in custody.

Fear lingers

About 30 km southeast, still in the exclusion zone, Hisae Unuma is also investigating the condition of her home, which withstood the earthquake a decade ago but is on the verge of collapse after years of wind, rain and snow ravaged it .

“I’m surprised it still stands,” said the 67-year-old farmer a week after the tremor that damaged Kato’s house.

“From there I could see my cattle in the field,” she said, pointing to the living room, whose view was now blocked by a tangle of bamboo.

Unuma fled when the cooling system at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s nuclear power plant, 2.5 km away, failed and the reactors began to melt.

The government, which Fukushima introduced as a symbol of national revitalization in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics, is encouraging residents to return to decontaminated land.

However, the ongoing fears of the nuclear power plant, jobs and poor infrastructure keep many away.

Unuma, now a vegetable farmer in Saitama Prefecture near Tokyo, where her husband died three years ago, will not return even if the government scrapes the radioactive soil off their fields.

According to a dosimeter measurement carried out by Reuters, the radiation levels around their house are around 20 times higher than in Tokyo.

Just removing the radioactive nuclei from Fukushima will make her feel safe, a task that will take decades.

“Regardless of the earthquake threat, if someone drops a tool in the wrong place, these reactors could burn out,” she said.

Before Unuma takes the four-hour drive back to her new home, she visits the Ranch of Hope, a cattle ranch owned by Masami Yoshizawa, who defied orders to kill their irradiated cattle in protest against the government and Tokyo Electric Power.

Among the 233 oxen is the last surviving ox from the 50-headed herd that Unuma previously tended, and one of her last living ties to the life she had before the disaster.

Her ox ignores her as she tries to lure him, and Yoshizawa gives her a handful of cabbage to tempt him.

“The thing about cattle is that they really only think about food,” said Yoshizawa.

Reporting by Tim Kelly and Kim Kyong Hoon; Additional coverage by Akira Tomoshige; Editing by Pravin Char

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