TORONTO (Reuters) - Taeko Nose says she may never forget the image of her two dogs - "her children" as she calls them - tied up on a leash as she was forced to leave her home during Japan's nuclear crisis. Certainly three months afterwards, it's still etched in her mind.
"I was told to get into a bus and leave my children behind," said Taeko Nose, 62, remembering the mandatory evacuation during the nuclear crisis that followed the deadly March 11 earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan, killing 15,000 people.
"I had no choice but to leave them on a leash in a garage. Their faces still traumatize me today," she said in a telephone interview, referring to her dogs Maron and Seri.
Nose wasn't the only one. Tens of thousands of residents within 20 km (12 miles) of the stricken nuclear plants were ordered to abandon their homes with little warning. Residents had to leave their pets behind, believing they would be able to go home in a few days.
More than three months later, thousands of dogs and cats are still homeless, while some 90,000 people are forced to live in evacuation centers. Many of them are still separated from their pets.
While such a situation would undoubtedly be wounding in many countries, it has been particularly painful in Japan, where animals hold a special place at the center of many households and pet ownership is widespread.
To save the lives of as many animals as possible, rescue groups have been working around the clock, and like in similar crises, social media has played an important role in the effort.
Even after April 22, when the government imposed a strict ban on unauthorized personnel entering the exclusion zone, volunteers have been staging clandestine trips, slipping into the zone "guerrilla style," as one of the organizers describes it.
"This isn't just helping animals but it's helping people. You can't separate the two," said Isabella Aoki Galleon, an organizer for Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support, one of the most active animal rescue groups in the disaster zone.
"They lost everything, lives and homes, and often pets are the only things they have left. The psychological damage is huge on top of everything else they had to suffer," she said, explaining why the work is continuing. "For us, it's still a long, ongoing situation."
Before the Japanese government imposed the ban, Galleon and her teams entered the zone mostly guided by the requests of desperate owners. But once inside, they found many displaced animals wandering the streets, and the teams had no idea how to locate their owners.
"If you go into the zone, animals were all over the place - farm animals, dogs, and cats. Animals were in distress on roads and they were in a very bad shape," she said. "People were not able to get access to their pets and basically animals were starving to death."
Galleon said there were 3,000 to 5,000 animals within the exclusion zone. In Fukushima, in the immediate area of the stricken nuclear plant, the rescue team has taken out at least 300 animals so far.
Some of the survivors' stories are heartbreaking. Yukiko Shirakawa, 48, who lived about 5 km from the crippled nuclear plant in the town of Tomioka, was forced to evacuate while at work. Not getting a chance to go home, she had to leave two dogs behind.
But Shirakawa had to leave much more than her dogs behind. Although she did not know it at the time, she later was to learn her only daughter was killed in the tsunami. While Shirakawa was waiting for a DNA test to identify her 26-year-old daughter, an organization called Inu Neko Minashigo Kyuentai, or Rescue Crews for Orphan Dogs and Cats, found one of the dogs, Nono.
"Nono was my daughter's favorite of the two dogs," Shirakawa said. "The other dog died of starvation, but Nono survived. I think my daughter protected Nono."
With the crippled nuclear plants still spewing radiation, health risks are the main concern for the rescue volunteers. Even so, people like Ryoko Tomomori, 34, are willing to take their chances to help reunite pets and their owners.
"Animals were facing the definite death of starvation. After weighing the immediate death against the fear of nuclear effect and the possibility of getting sick, I decided to go in with very careful operations, instead of regretting not helping them down the road," she said.
The difficulty of reuniting stranded pets with their owners does not always end with their rescue. In many cases, owners can't take their animals back to live with them because evacuation centers and temporary apartments don't permit pets. Construction of more permanent housing is behind schedule, leaving some evacuees stranded from their rescued pets for now.
As a consequence, Orphan Dogs and Cats expects no immediate end to the pet crisis, according to its director Yuri Nakatani.
Nakatani has been forced to put tight limits on the number of animals her shelter accepts. To make matters worse, some cats and dogs were pregnant when they were rescued, and they are now giving birth to their litters, putting more pressure on the care providers.
"To maintain the quality for the rescued animals is also essential. If the quality of their lives went down, there is no point of rescuing them. I target to keep 50-60 animals in our shelter, while finding host families for them."
In the two months after the nuclear disaster, Nakatani's organization rescued at least 700 animals, including Nose's Maron and Seri. Nose said she was overwhelmed by guilt and despair after being separated from her dogs. She stopped eating and had difficulty sleeping at the evacuation center. Then she heard about Orphan Dogs and Cats by word of mouth.
"As soon as I heard that she got my children, I started running a high fever and was taken to the hospital," she said. Nakatani "did so much for me, but I have no way of repaying her. I've been thinking about how I can return her kindness and care."
Editing by Frank McGurty