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Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011

JAPAN LITE

Not just cats — will dogs also get nine lives?


Special to The Japan Times

They say cats have nine lives, but dogs? With the help of the Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support, dogs may soon get nine lives too.

News photo
Kate O'Callaghan poses with the dog Maruko at the animal shelter HEART Tokushima. COURTESY OF SUSAN MERCER

This is the miraculous story of Maruko, a dog who survived under the rubble of her house in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, for 11 days with no food or water after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster. But that was just the beginning of a long, hard six-month journey for this dog who still had a few spare lives left in her. Or some damn good canine karma.

After being taken out from under her collapsed home, the confused and rankled canis familiaris was taken to the local pound (hokenjo), where dogs are kept for five days before they're destroyed. At the pound, Maruko sought revenge on an unfair world by trying to bite everyone who laid a hand on her. She growled in her sleep. This was one putrid pooch.

The snarling wire-haired terrier mix was labeled "aggressive" and too dangerous to be handled. So the handlers at the pound left her in a cage. There, Maruko languished for five days, each day bringing her closer to the gas chamber.

In the meantime, the municipal government of Ofunato on behalf of the pound was able to locate Maruko's owners. Unfortunately, however, her owners were living in a shelter too, one for victims of the earthquake and tsunami. As they were unable to take back the dog, they hoped the pound would hold Maruko until they could get proper housing and be reunited.

Instead, the pound decided to destroy the dog.

On day 5, with just hours left before Maruko was to hit the gas chamber, Kate O'Callaghan arrived at the Ofunato city hall with a posse of JEARS volunteers, including a veterinarian. She had heard of the plans to destroy Maruko. "JEARS was not about to let that happen," said O'Callaghan, a proponent of no-kill animal shelters.

JEARS is a collaboration of three established no-kill animal rescue NPOs in Japan: Animal Friends Niigata, HEART Tokushima and the Japan Cat Network. These groups organize volunteers from around the country to help animals in need.

O'Callaghan volunteered to fly from her home in Okinawa to Iwate Prefecture to help rescue Maruko. Other volunteers around the country help coordinate transports for the animals from one place to another.

"When we finally saw the dog, she was inside a cage shaking with fright," recalls O'Callaghan. "Maruko wasn't aggressive, she was traumatized." Luckily, JEARS volunteers are natural dog psychologists. They know how to win dogs and influence people. After hours of negotiations, the city hall finally agreed to let JEARS take Maruko from the pound. With doggie treats, some TLC and lots of patience, they were able to win Maruko's trust.

But no one told JEARS about Maruko's owners.

The JEARS volunteers took Maruko to Animal Friends Niigata, where she lived off the kindness of animal-loving strangers for a month. As the Niigata shelter filled up with more and more animal victims of the Tohoku disaster, some had to be moved to back-up shelters around the country. In May, Maruko was transferred 1,000 km away to HEART Tokushima run by Susan Mercer and her husband Hitoshi Tojo. They currently house over 50 dogs from the earthquake-hit areas and have10 to 20 volunteers helping.

While Maruko was adjusting to her third temporary housing situation, her owners returned to the pound in Iwate looking for her. There, they were told Maruko was still alive, but didn't know where she was.

The owners turned to the Internet to search for missing dogs. They came across the JEARS blog, which had posted a YouTube video that O'Callahan had made called "Maruko's Story," which included details of her rescue.

On Sept. 18, Tojo drove the dog from Tokushima in Shikoku to Osaka's Itami Airport, where he was met by Junko Ogura, a JEARS volunteer from Okayama. From there, Ogura flew with the dog by plane to Sendai, where Maruko's family met her at the airport after a four-hour drive from Iwate Prefecture. For a family who had lost everything in the earthquake and tsunami, having their dog back was a remarkable gift.

"Her spirit is young, she is always smiling," said Mercer at HEART Tokushima, reminiscing about Maruko's time spent at her animal shelter. "She understood she had a second chance at life, so she wanted to live it to the fullest."

Welcome home Maruko, you lucky dog!

But not all dogs are that lucky. Give dogs nine lives the easy way: microchip them. Your local veterinarian will be happy to do so.

Help dogs get reunited with their owners by either becoming a volunteer, or by making a donation at JEARS (www.jears.org) or HEART Tokushima (www.heart-tokushima.com).


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