Town’s Animals Have A Weird Mutation That Are Leaving People Concerned

There’s a lot of perks in growing up on a farm. None, however, top the animals. Being able to feed an ostrich, milk a cow, and cuddle a cat all without leaving the property is all anyone can ask for. That doesn’t come without some serious emotional attachment, though.

That’s why one Japanese man couldn’t stop thinking about his animals after a terrible disaster forced him to flee his home. Determined to see his friends again, he defied laws and headed right for the trouble. He — nor the scientists that studied the spot years later — could believe what he saw when he returned.

As Naoto Matsumura fed his beloved kittens in 2011, he was acutely aware that he was breaking Japanese law. He didn’t care, though. His animals meant everything to him. In fact, caring for them was literally cutting years off his life.

See, Naoto didn’t exactly live in a “normal” community. He lived in Tomioka, Japan, which, after 2011, wasn’t the beautiful, cherry-blossom-lined village the 50-some-odd-year-old farmer had fallen in love with over the past five decades.

Because on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the Pacific Ocean just a few miles off Japan’s eastern coast. One of the most powerful quakes in history, the aftermath proved devastating to Naoto’s home town.

Japan Forward

The Great East Japan Earthquake stirred up tsunamis that smashed into the Fukushima Prefecture, cutting off power to three nuclear reactors in the area. A meltdown that rivaled Chernobyl ensued, the fallout making it all the way to Naoto Matsumura’s Tomioka.

Public officials wisely demanded citizens evacuate the fallout area, so Naoto took his parents and went south to Iwaki, unable to bring his beloved farm animals with him. He needed his pets, but he was only supposed to be gone a few days.

After evacuating, Naoto started kicking an idea around in his head. What if he just…. went back to the radioactive exclusion zone? The thought of radiation-induced Leukemia terrified him, but the fear of losing his animals hurt him just as bad.

So, leaving his parents in Iwaki, Naoto returned to Tomioka. “I was born and raised in this town,” he said. “When I die, it’s going to be in Tomioka.” Whether he lived for two weeks or 40 years, he didn’t care — he wanted to be with his animals.

He arrived in Tomioka, where he was immediately bombarded by about 17 times the amount of radiation a person can be safely exposed to. Japanese law required his home and village be closed to the public. How could anything survive there?

Greenpeace

Somehow, though, the animals on his family farm were all alive — and doing well, by the look of it. So, as if a nuclear reactor had not just melted down all that far from his home, Naoto went to work feeding the animals. Soon, he realized something.

Naoto Matsumura

After feeding his dogs, “the neighbors’ dogs started going crazy,” he said. “I went over to check on them and found that they were all still tied up. Everyone in town left thinking they would be back home in a week or so.” That wasn’t the case.

Naoto Matsumura

So, Naoto untied the animals and fed them. These were only a few of the suffering animals in town, however. “Everywhere I went there was always barking,” he said. “Like, ‘we’re thirsty’ or, ‘we don’t have any food.’” He couldn’t feed them all… could he?

Naoto Matsumura

He could! With a renewed sense of purpose, Naoto started caring for animals all over the exclusion zone. Scientists “told me that I wouldn’t get sick [from radiation] for 30 or 40 years,” he said. “I’ll most likely be dead by then anyway.”

Operating off donations from locals inspired by his bravery, “The Guardian of Fukushima’s Animals” continues caring for the town’s pets, even though the government forbade it. No one could stop him. Still, he did have some concerns.

Naoto Matsumura, Guardian of Fukushima’s Animals

Like, for instance, what would become of the other animals caught in the nuclear fall out? Tomioka was a small town. There were still miles upon miles of evacuated territory full of animals both domesticated and wild that Naoto couldn’t tend to.

Naoto Matsumura, Guardian of Fukushima’s Animals

Well, the University of Georgia had similar questions. Nearly a decade after the earthquake and ensuing fallout, researchers went to the exclusion zone armed only with a camera and a sense of curiosity. What they found seemingly defied science.

University of Georgia

“Numerous species of wildlife are now abundant throughout the Fukushima Evacuation Zone, despite the presence of radiological contamination,” said James Beasley, a UGA wildlife biologist. How could this happen?

University of Georgia

Incredibly, while scouting an environment devoid of humans — and heavily contaminated with fallout! — UGA researchers snapped photos of 20 thriving animal species. One animal population seemed to be really doing well.

University of Georgia

Wild boars, which normally found themselves at the wrong end of a hunting rifle, flourished within the nuclear fallout. Governments officials reported the hogs had moved into abandoned homes and farms. These discoveries, of course, came with a caveat.

University of Georgia

There wasn’t any evidence that these animals were completely healthy or wouldn’t suffer long-term genetic damage. Still, scientists were baffled by the idea that, even in the midst of nuclear fall out, animals thrived without humans around.

University of Georgia

To further build their theory, UGA scientists looked to another famous exclusion zone. On April 26, 1986, the No. 4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat of the former Ukranian SSR exploded during a routine safety test — and the effect on animals proved just as bizarre.

In the wake of the disaster, over 300,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding areas, forced to leave their homes, belongings, and even pets behind. Many believed they’d be allowed to return shortly after the accident, though, unfortunately, this wasn’t the case (Sound familiar?).

Chernobyl Tour

Three decades later, the Exclusion Zone remains almost completely abandoned, a ruined relic of the past completely frozen in time. But although the human population here has been reduced to near-zero, animal populations thrive.

The descendants of the pets left behind during the initial evacuations still reside in the Exclusion Zone and continue to proliferate despite the high levels of radiation. The Clean Futures Fund, which has worked to care for these animals over the years, estimates that more than 600 strays call this area home.

Along with stray pets, the Exclusion Zone saw a dramatic increase in the number of wild animals in the area. In fact, some scientists believe that the local animal population is actually greater now than it was back in 1986.

Elk, deer, foxes, and bison are among the various groups of animals that have been spotted roaming the area, and with a lack of human interference, their numbers have exploded in recent years. Even the European brown bear – a species not seen in the region for nearly a century – has been spotted in the Zone.

Taking this phenomenon into account, conservationists are now making attempts to use the Exclusion Zone as a means to protect endangered animals. After releasing a herd of rare Przewalski’s horses into the area, scientists have seen a steady increase in their numbers as well.

But it seems that the native gray wolf population has benefited the most from the absence of humans. Without any natural predators, wolves have become the most prevalent species in the Exclusion Zone.

Scientists believe that the wolf population here is actually seven times larger than those of most uncontaminated reserves. In fact, wildlife ecologist Jim Beasley once estimated that the wolves of the Exclusion Zone outnumber even those of Yellowstone National Park.

Yet while it’s certainly a good thing that these animals have done so well, there’s still the question as to what kind of long-term effects the radiation will have on them. Thus far, scientists’ observations have been mixed.

Business Insider

Despite their large numbers, most of the stray dogs in the Exclusion Zone are struggling to survive. They primarily rely on scraps left behind by visitors for food, and very few of them live beyond the age of six.

Bellona

Smaller animals like birds, fish, and rodents have also begun to exhibit the damaging effects of radiation, such as the development of tumors and cataracts. Albinism and other genetic disorders are also common, and the rate of growth abnormalities has spiked as well.

Even the insect world has been rocked by this radiation. Most spiders that reside in the Exclusion Zone can no longer spin geometrically perfect webs, and the lifespan of most bugs has decreased due to a higher susceptibility to parasites.

Metro UK

There is also fear that these animals will begin to venture beyond the Exclusion Zone, contaminating other areas and passing down their mutated genetic code to future offspring. This fear is especially true of the area’s birds, who can cover much larger distances than their four-legged counterparts.

Yet wolves are also known to stray to other parts of the region, most often in search of a mate. Given their large population and ease of mobility, this could pose an enormous threat to neighboring ecosystems.

To study this risk, scientists tracked these wolves and found that their influence may not be limited to just neighboring areas. One wolf traveled a staggering 250 miles in 2018, though to some, this was actually a positive.

World Economic Forum

According to Anders Moller, a scientist at the University of Paris-Stud, this wolf could travel such a great distance proved the effects of radiation on animals may not be as devastating as once believed. In fact, some have asserted the populations of the Exclusion Zone may have actually adapted to the radiation.

Though the long-term effects of this radiation remain to be seen, there’s no question the animals of the Exclusion Zone are more than capable of surviving.

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