TOKYO — When about 80,000 people were told to flee explosions at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant in March, many left their pets at home, thinking they could soon return to get them.
Two months later, thousands of pets are still there, starving, scavenging or waiting for their owners to come home to an area sealed off by the government.
Wearing protective clothing and face masks, Makomi Tsuruta, a pet rescuer, went into the 12-mile danger zone near the plant a few weeks ago with a Geiger counter, food and cages to rescue seven cats. She was acting at the request of their owner, a farmer named Mr. O-uchi, who lives in an evacuation shelter.
“I wasn’t scared, but the animals were,” she said.
The cats were mangy and starving, and some other cats in the area were even feeding on carcasses of dead animals, including other cats, she said.
After checking them for radiation and washing them, she had them vaccinated by a veterinarian. She took the seven cats to join another 23 felines already living at her home in Ibaraki prefecture just south of Fukushima.
Disoriented at first, the seven rescued cats now are eating and adjusting to their 23 new friends, she said.
Mrs. Tsuruta, a member of one of about 70 animal welfare groups in Japan, said she would like to go back to rescue some of the estimated 5,000 cats and dogs left behind in the radiation zone, in addition to thousands of horses, cows, pigs, chickens and other animals.
But the government has sealed off the area since April 22 and has bussed in only small groups of evacuated residents on quick trips to collect photo albums, laptops and other valuables in small plastic bags.
“We want the government to give us more access to the area and to provide more shelters for the animals,” said Mrs. Tsuruta at a protest of about 500 animal welfare activists in the Shibuya shopping district of Tokyo.
“It’s very hard to find shelters in Japan for pets from the nuclear zone.”
She and other pet rescuers also want the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the stricken Fukushima reactors, to reimburse them for the cost of animal rescues.
“We’re keeping receipts,” she said. “We’re waiting for their reply, but we’re not sure if they are sincere about giving us an answer.”
Since the March 11 disasters left thousands of animals abandoned around the nuclear plant, animal activists in Japan have banded together to form a vocal lobby group.
“Many people want to save these animals, but the government won’t give them permission. It’s really horrible,” said Akiko Fujimura, a leader of Japan’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“If the pets have radioactive elements on their skin, it’s no problem to wash it off. I think the government basically doesn’t care about animals.”
Ms. Fujimura said she is worried that many pets will starve to death, especially as the summer heat begins to build up.
Like many activists, Ms. Fujimura temporarily is taking care of a pet while its owner sleeps in a crowded evacuation center.
Her new friend, a Shih Tzu named “Ringo-chan,” meaning “Apple,” was shaking with fear at first when Ms. Fujimura brought her home to join her two other dogs.
“She wouldn’t eat for about five days. She was really scared and confused. But now she’s relaxed and eating, and she’s going to be OK. I hear it’s the same with all the other rescued dogs,” Ms. Fujimura said.
Most of the volunteer rescuers, including growing numbers of foreigners in Japan and overseas, are spending a lot of time on phones or the Internet raising funds, finding shelters or trying to match up owners with animals.
Ms. Fujimura said the Japan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has received more donations of money for pet food, cages and other equipment from the United States and Europe than from within Japan.
Katrina Larsen, a Tokyo resident from Australia, said a group of rescuers are renting a house from a pet-friendly owner in Fukushima in order to be closer to the disaster zone.
However, there is little they can do if the government continues to block entry into the area within the 12-mile radius around the nuclear reactors.
With shelters full across Japan, Ms. Fujimura said she hopes more Japanese will take in pets. Japanese already have one pet for every four persons, on average, she said.
“When many people ran away from the tsunami or the nuclear explosions, they let their pets outside to flee on their own,” she said.
“But they are loyal pets, not wild animals. They are waiting for their owners to come home.”