Japan creates emergency response teams for animals

Read on to find out why Japanese vets and animal caretakers have decided to band together to ensure that all creatures are rescued during disasters.
By Latasha Seow
Published on Friday, 19 May 2017

Photo credit: The Japan Times


Comprising of vets and animal caretakers, this special group of specialists termed the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT) was specially created to provide rescue efforts for livestock and pets. The earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku region of Japan in 2011 were what prompted Japanese authorities to create such special teams, but the first VMAT team was only formed in Fukuoka in 2013. As of last year, has been established on Osaka and Gunma as well. Within this year, VMATs will be formed in Nagoya, Sapporo and Tokyo.


Up until March 2011, it was commonplace for individuals in Japan to be involved in rescue efforts when natural disasters struck. However, it was this lack of coordination amongst rescuers that led to the abandonment of thousands of animals. “The absence of a common language, common understanding and a common system among the rescuers and between the rescuers and those receiving aid made it difficult for us to deliver aid in 2011,” said Masaki Okonogi, head of the VMAT in Gunma Prefecture.


The organisation behind the VMAT teams is the Japanese Association of Disaster Veterinary Medicine, which was established in 2014 by Shinichi Hayama, a professor at Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University. It conducts seminars in various regions with the aim of establishing VMATs in respective parts of Japan.


However, there are several challenges that lie ahead. Vets are not beneficiaries of the country’s Disaster Relief Act. Under this, doctors, architects and government officials are permitted access to disaster areas, and are provided an allowance and compensation in cases of accidents or death, but vets are not guaranteed the same treatment. If they are allowed into the sites of disaster, they are only able to play the role of a volunteer, which, according to Hayama, makes it difficult for them to attract more potential vets to come on board.


To add to this, animals that are successfully rescued may have to stay at shelters for long periods of time—sometimes over a month—because they suffer from stress-related diseases. Hence, besides having a team to rescue and provide immediate aid to the animals, the country would have to recruit volunteers to work at these shelters to care for the animals there.

“Hundreds of thousands of animals are expected to be affected if an inland earthquake hits Tokyo or the Nankai Trough off central and western Japan, and they cannot be aided just with the help of volunteers,” said Hayama. “There is a need to start preparations from now and training. You cannot expect the VMAT of the region that has been affected by a calamity to respond, and therefore support is required from areas not affected by it. You never know when a calamity will hit, so it is important to have VMATs everywhere.”