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FUKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - Dogs and cats that were abandoned in the Fukushima exclusion zone after last year's nuclear crisis have had to survive high radiation and a lack of food, and they are now struggling with the region's freezing winter weather.
"If left alone, tens of them will die everyday. Unlike well-fed animals that can keep themselves warm with their own body fat, starving ones will just shrivel up and die," said Yasunori Hoso, who runs a shelter for about 350 dogs and cats rescued from the 20-km evacuation zone around the crippled nuclear plant.
The government let animal welfare groups enter the evacuation zone temporarily in December to rescue surviving pets before the severe winter weather set in, but Hoso said there were still many more dogs and cats left in the area.
"If we cannot go in to take them out, I hope the government will at least let us go there and leave food for them," he said.
A 9.0-magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami on March 11 triggered the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years and forced residents around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to flee, with many of them having to leave behind their pets.
More than 150,000 people from Fukushima prefecture still cannot return to their homes, with nearly half of them from the exclusion zone.
While Japan focuses on containing the nuclear accident and protecting people from radiation, Hoso, representative director of United Kennel Club Japan, has been trying to save as many dogs and cats from the no-go zone as possible, or keep pets for those who are living in shelters where pets are not allowed.
Toru Akama, an engineer working at the Fukushima nuclear plant, asked Hoso to look after his 14 dogs when an entry ban was imposed on his town.
"I was really happy for my dogs. They are part of my family. There was no way I could abandon them," Akama said.
Hoso said he aims to carry on until the last dog in his shelter is returned to its owner or finds a new home.
"When dogs are returned, many owners are really grateful and a limited few are not so grateful. But when it comes to dogs, all of them, without exception, become really ecstatic when they get reunited with their owners," Hoso said.
"That is what keeps me going, what makes me determined that I have to push ahead until the last one goes back to its owner."
Reporting by Issei Kato and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Chris Gallagher