On a day Kazuhiro Kokubo should have been focusing on defending his U.S. Open half pipe title at Stratton Mountain, Vermont, the news from Japan suddenly changed the 22-year-old’s priorities as his heart went out to his country and the people of Tohoku.
“I was speechless and, for the first time since I was a kid, I sat and cried as we watched the news reports,” Kazu, as he is simply known, said. “I knew immediately I wanted to help my country and, like so many people, didn’t know how.
“At that moment, my main focus was not on winning the competition, but just getting through it and being with my wife who was on her way to the U.S. from Japan.”
After securing his second consecutive U.S. Open title, Kazu “celebrated” by boarding straight down the center of the half pipe for his victory run while saying a silent prayer for Japan.
“This win, and my final run, was my prayer for Japan,” Kazu said. “To show my support and let everyone watching the event know, as great as the moment was for me personally, it means nothing next to what so many people are going through.”
Back in California, Kazu and his wife, Tomoe, decided to support animal rescue, a key element to stabilizing life for the people in northern Japan and the animals about which they care. Searching online, they found Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS) and were impressed with the group’s mission, lack of political focus and the fact there was no bureaucracy to wade through.
“JEARS is about action first, paperwork later, and that appealed to me,” Kazu said.
Early in May, Kazu made good on his pledge to volunteer by helping at one of the JEARS shelters in Niigata before meeting up with the JEARS ground team in the coastal town of Sōma in Fukushima Prefecture.
The port and coastal areas of Sōma were badly affected by the tsunami. Sōma contains several evacuation centers which, two months after the tsunami, were still full of people left homeless. Many have pets they take care of any way they can, even keeping them in a cardboard box outside the shelter or in a car.
During the next couple of hours, Kazu, together with the JEARS team, toured the evacuation centers, handing out food and checking on any pets that might need special diets or a trip to a vet.
The group then left Sōma and headed for Minami Sōma. Passing coastal areas, they were doing a customary check for any animals that still might be lost in the devastation. Driving through the now familiar no-man’s-land of twisted and tangled debris, scattered here and there with cars and fishing boats, they suddenly came across a small dog, dirty and alone.
They quickly stopped and rummaged in the van for gloves, a slip lead and dog treats. Pet rescue can be a tricky business and, as with their human counterparts, pets in disaster zones are highly stressed, so gloves and thick clothes are needed for protection. It’s also important to take care when approaching the animals.
With the slip lead in the hands of a seasoned volunteer, everyone crouched down to reduce stress on the dog. However, he seemed to know help was on the way and, within a few minutes, the dog was safely on a lead. Shortly after, he was happily in a cage on his way to the safety of the shelter and a meal.
With daylight fading fast, another day of rescue and support ended as it had begun, on the road. The JEARS crew thanked Kazu for his support before saying goodbye.
Back at the shelter, there were animals to feed, cages to clean and supplies to pack. The next morning this dedicated team, with the support of volunteers such as Kazu, will be out there doing it all over again, rescuing animals and reuniting families.
After the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, there was an outpouring of sympathy and support for those in need, and many NGOs rushed to Tohoku to help as volunteer support flooded in.
Most organizations focused on people, but a small group recognized pets are an important part of the family as well. A dog or cat may be the only family some have.
Three “no-kill” animal shelters realized long-term support was needed, but the time to act was now. A day after the earthquake, Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS) was formed to rescue animals from the tsunami-devastated areas and to bring needed food and support to homeless pet owners.
A few days later, a van and driver were found, courtesy of Black Diamond Lodge in Niseko, Hokkaido. They not only offered their van, but also staff member Toby Weymiller offered to be the driver. Their Facebook page and Website, both managed by foreign volunteers, generated attention, and generous donations came flooding in to support the rescue operations.
Since then, the team has covered thousands of kilometers and hundreds of animals rescued. Two more cars have been donated and two temporary shelters set up at Inawashira-cho, near Mt. Bandai in Fukushima, and in Sendai. Every day shelters continue to accept animals while ground teams deliver donated food to shelters. They also continue to rescue animals.
None of this could have been done without the day-to-day dedication of the shelter owners and ground team and a large number of volunteers in Japan helping with field rescue and shelter management.
The following animal rescue organizations and no-kill animal shelters formed JEARS. Web: http://jears.org
Japan Cat Network
Directors: David Wybenga and Susan Roberts. Web: www.japancatnet.com
Directors: Susan Mercer and Hitoshi Tojo. Web: www.heart-tokushima.com
Animal Friends Niigata
Director: Isabella Gallaon-Aoki. Web: www.afniigata.org