Extreme Conservation: The Stories Of Those Willing To Risk Their Lives To Care For Animals

Extreme Conservation: The Stories Of Those Willing To Risk Their Lives To Care For Animals

Posted by Phoebe Codling on Nov 21, 2017

Here at The Great Projects, conservation is our aim, and animal welfare is our game. So you guys know how passionate we are about taking care of animals, and we make it our life’s work to inspire others and aid conservation whenever we can. But there are some people who have made caring for animals their calling, making the ultimate sacrifices in order to save lives and be their only hope. We thought that these people deserved to be discussed, and today that’s what we’re going to do!

So, where do we begin? Well first up is no other than Naoto Matsumura, a 57 year old former rice farmer from Tomioka, Japan. You may remember that in March 2011, Fukushima in Japan was devastated by a magnitude 9 earthquake (the worst earthquake in Japan’s history) triggering a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. A tsunami was triggered by the earthquake, which in turn prompted the emergency generators of the plant to shut down, essentially leading to a nuclear meltdown and the release of radioactive material. The disaster was the worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl in 1986, and the Japanese government imposed an exclusion radius of 20 kilometres from the power plant which is still in place today. Naoto Matsumura’s home - the small town of Tomioka - is well within this exclusion zone, situated only 11km from the site. Unsurprisingly it was evacuated immediately, and the town’s 15,000 residents fled. Except for one.

Naoto Matsumura quote

After originally leaving and not finding suitable shelter, Naoto decided to return to Tomioka for good, refusing to leave his childhood home and town, and of course, its animals. Despite the record breaking levels of radiation he is constantly being exposed to, he doesn’t seem to mind. To put it into perspective, any location with a reading that exceeds 0.6 microsieverts an hour should be considered a radiation-controlled area. Outside Naoto’s home measures 7. We all know the stories of what radiation exposure can do to a person, but as doctors have informed Naoto that he is unlikely to feel the effects of the radiation for at least another thirty years, he is relatively unconcerned, exclaiming “I’ll be dead by then anyway”.

Naoto Matsumura quote

Naoto first started with feeding and caring for his own cattle and pet dogs after the disaster struck. When he realised the extent of the abandoned animals left in Tomioka, he took it upon himself to feed them too. Unsurprisingly, Naoto vehemently opposes the Japanese government’s decision to mass-euthanize livestock in the cities and towns affected by radiation, believing it to be a ‘waste’. In his own words, ‘why slaughter them if they’re happy and healthy?’ particularly when they could be used for important experiments in the years to come.

Naoto’s fixation on keeping his animals healthy and alive is his crutch, despite making huge sacrifices to do so. On a daily basis, he takes care of 50 cows, two ostriches, dogs and cats, spending around six or seven hours a day tending to them. He has no electricity; he relies on food parcels and solar power to survive. Winters are tough, but Naoto soldiers on. Except for his animals, Naoto is unequivocally alone. His health is so far unaffected, though this seems to be the least of his worries. Naoto’s sacrifice is so much more than the radiation; it’s his livelihood, his family, and surely his mental health? Naoto rarely sees anyone or anything except his animals on a daily basis, yet he says he’s gotten used to it. Naoto believes that “I’ve no choice but to die in Tomioka”; a bold claim, but then who are we to judge?

Naoto is no doubt a modern-day saint, dedicating his life to the care of Tomioka’s animals, but is he mad? Or just selfless? Either way, Naoto is doing something that most of us wouldn’t even dream of, whether we call ourselves animal lovers or not. Watch Naoto’s interview here.

Naoto’s case is obviously extreme in its background, and most definitely unusual. But what about the case of a normal guy, in a civilised society, who just took things one step too far?

Timothy Treadwell was a self-proclaimed animal lover from a young age, who became enamoured with bears in his thirties after surviving a heroin overdose in the late 1980’s. Persuaded by a friend to travel to Alaska to watch bears, Treadwell later announced he had found his calling in life and would continue to dedicate his life to bears. In 1997, he authored ‘Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears in Alaska’ and later set up the grassroots organisation, Grizzly People, which enabled Treadwell to continue his mission to educate people and to fund his travels to the Katmai National Park in Alaska every summer.

Timothy Treadwell quote

He spent every summer for thirteen years visiting the bears in this specific location, telling anyone who would listen that he had developed a special relationship with the creatures, describing them as “big party animals” in a now-infamous episode of The Late Show with David Letterman. Whilst it is true he catapulted bears into the consciousness of many people, Treadwell was reckless both in his behaviour, and his manipulation of the media. The Grizzly Bear (North American Brown Bear) is not usually dangerous to humans and try to avoid contact as much as possible. However, it cannot be underestimated in both its physical strength and protective nature. Bear attacks are unusual, and Treadwell’s demise makes it somewhat ironic. Treadwell boasted about his kindred relationship with the bears he visited every summer, commenting often that he had gained their trust.

Experts at the National Park dismissed this out of hand, with the park rangers believing that the bears were at more risk from Treadwell himself than the poachers he was supposedly protecting them from. He had many run-ins with the National Park Service over the years, mainly due to improper food storage, his outright refusal to carry bear spray and his prolonged periods of camping in the same spot. The rangers at Katmai alleged that in addition to all these violations, Treadwell was harassing the bears in their natural habitat and inevitably setting himself up for a major fall. Which of course, is what happened in October 2003.

Timothy Treadwell quote

Treadwell was camping with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, in Kodiak Island, a part of the Katmai National Park when he finally met his maker. October is late in the season to observe bears due to their need to feed as much as possible before winter sets in. Food was already scarce that Autumn, and unsurprisingly the lack of food is a common cause of heightened aggression in bears. Treadwell had decided to camp near a stream where the bears often chose to catch salmon, filming them dive just hours before his death. Treadwell and Huguenard were tragically mauled to death on October 6th 2003 – their bodies were found by a pilot who was due to pick them up. He was naturally horrified at the scene he discovered. Both bodies were dismembered and mangled, almost beyond recognition. Even more tragically, the whole ordeal had been captured on tape. Whilst the tape is blank on-screen, their chilling screams are recorded.

Unfortunately, this particular case of risking one’s life to protect animals is almost impossible to justify. The grizzly bears Treadwell decided to focus on were content, happy and not in any danger; they essentially did not need to be saved or protected. Timothy Treadwell was undoubtedly a bear enthusiast, who became obsessed with the need to ‘save’ these animals, genuinely thinking of bears as fellow humans. The film, Grizzly Man, was released two years after Treadwell’s death using over 100 hours of footage he had recorded on his expeditions. Its director, Werner Herzog, believed that Treadwell had a death wish. He believed Treadwell’s need to protect the bears was his way of escaping his own demons with substance abuse; the wilderness was Timothy Treadwell’s salvation.

But it has to be stressed that this form of conservation and ‘salvation’ is a step too far, and the case of Timothy Treadwell should be treated as a cautionary tale. He is a prime example of someone who became complacent, and for want of a better word, cocky. Bears are not humans, yet he treated them as so. His fixation became an obsession, and unfortunately it can be said he certainly did more harm than good.

But let’s not end the article on a sour note, as there are plenty more examples of the lengths many people go to, to both save and care for our animals, whilst risking their lives. A prime example is someone almost everyone has heard of, no other than Steve Irwin. Now, I know what you’re thinking. He didn’t die saving an animal, it was just bad luck. And indeed it was, but Steve Irwin was dedicated to his craft of educating the world about animals and constantly risked his life for the documentaries we all so enjoyed, whether he was wrestling with crocodiles or filming the ocean’s secrets underwater. He often put himself in dangerous situations in order to capture our imaginations and inspire others to become involved in conservation, and to appreciate the importance of our wildlife.

Steve Irwin quote

Steve and his wife, Terri, set up the Wildlife Warriors foundation in 2002 in an effort to ‘support the protection of injured, threatened or endangered wildlife - from the individual animal to an entire species.’ Since its establishment, it has helped with countless conservation projects and is a permanent fixture at Australia Zoo, a huge tourist attraction in Queensland.

Steve Irwin quote

Sadly, Steve was killed in late 2006 by a stingray whilst filming for a documentary about the ocean’s deadliest animals and, no, the irony is not lost on me. The stingray pierced Irwin’s heart, and he later bled to death. His death is no doubt a tragic accident, but his ultimate aim was to educate and inspire which he certainly did during his time in front of the camera. However, it could be said that due to his years of experience, Irwin was somewhat blasé about dealing with potentially fatal animals like crocodiles, but on the other hand, some could say that was part of his charm and appeal. It must be said, however, that Irwin was always very upfront on camera about this part of his personality, and consequently the positive effects of his documentaries, despite his death, cannot be ignored.

Now guys, I know this has been a long one, BUT I can’t leave without talking about people who risk their lives every single day in their quest to save both people AND animals, shoving the consequences aside and getting stuck in. We’ve all heard of firefighters getting called out to rescue cats stuck in trees, but there are also countless stories of firefighters going back into buildings that are on the verge of collapse to save the family dog. For example, this heroic man from Detroit not only saves the dogs from a burning building, but he then gives the pup his oxygen mask! Oh, my heart actually hurts.

These incredible men and women work tirelessly to not only save people, but animals too, and they don’t get enough credit or wages! A prime example of their bravery is shown in this article right here, saving hundreds of animals on a (not so) average weekday. Our emergency services must be praised for the incredible work they do - aren’t we so lucky?

So, my fellow animal lovers, we’ve reached the end! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this one, as I’ve had a lot of fun writing it. As animal lovers, I believe it’s difficult to know where we would all personally draw the line when it comes to risking our lives for animals. Would I risk my life for my own pet? I’m sure I would. Would I for someone else’s? I’m not entirely sure. Either way, there is a fine line between heroism and stupidity. It’s safe to say that we probably wouldn’t know until we’re in the situation, but regardless, I don’t think I’m going to go and camp next door to a grizzly bear any time soon.


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