TOKYO – When Etsumi Ogino saw a news photo of a pack of shelties wandering through an abandoned town near Japan's tsunami-damaged nuclear plant, she thought of her own 13-year-old canine Kein and jumped into action.
"My heart trembled," said Ogino, a 56-year-old volunteer at an animal shelter in Chiba prefecture. "They looked just like my dog. I started searching for them right away."
She and others around Japan called Asahi.com, the website of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which had run the photo. An Associated Press photographer had snapped that photo and others of the dogs on an empty street in Minami Soma city, an area evacuated because of radiation fears.
On Saturday, the AP gave her details of where the dogs were spotted.
Ogino relayed the information to a team of animal rescuers called Sheltie Rescue. By then, the group had been getting emails from dog lovers around the country about the abandoned pack.
Through emails and Internet research it was established that the owner of the dogs was a breeder in Minami Soma. The group contacted the Fukushima city branch of the Japan Collie Club, tracked the owner down by phone at a shelter and got her go-ahead to rescue the dogs.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, seven volunteers left Tokyo and drove over broken roads and past demolished houses to meet three other volunteers in the ghost town that Minami Soma has become. Some had prepared radiation suits and others wore simple vinyl raincoats.
The first two to arrive found the pack around the Odaka train station, near the owner's home, where the AP team had last seen them.
"They were waiting for their owner," said Tamiko Nakamura, a volunteer who went with the group from Tokyo.
The dogs had been left some dry food, and weren't starving.
It took a while to entice them with snacks, and six or seven were bundled into each car. The group saved 20 dogs in all.
Most were taken to a veterinary clinic in Kanagawa prefecture just west of Tokyo. Others are being cared for by individuals in other areas.
The owner, worn down by the disaster and worrying about her dogs, was "extremely happy," Nakamura said. She said the owner did not want her identity revealed.
Nakamura only regrets that some of the dogs in the pack ran away and countless others are still stranded in the evacuation zone.
"There are still some left behind," she said. "I'm concerned about them and want to pull them out."
Associated Press writer Eric Talmadge and photographer Hiro Komae spotted the dogs in Minami Soma on April 7.