After seeing footage of the devastation caused by the deadly earthquake and tsunami in Japan three years ago, Howard Watanabe-Jin says he felt he needed to help.

So in April 2011, just a little more month after the disaster, he booked a plane ticket and headed to Japan.

The Toronto man didn’t know exactly what he was going to do when he got there.

Japan was still reeling from the quake that caused an estimated 19,000 deaths and rocked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, displacing hundreds of thousands more.

Every day for a week, Watanabe-Jin said he made the 11-hour roundtrip trek from Osaka to areas surrounding Koriyama -- a city in the prefecture of Fukushima -- looking for opportunities to help.

But Watanabe-Jin didn’t have the clearance to go into the area most affected by the radiation seeping from Fukushima’s failed reactors.

He soon returned to Canada, but didn’t give up hope of helping.

Watanabe-Jin pushed to find another volunteer opportunity, and eventually came across an agency that invited him back: he would be returning to Japan to rescue animals.

“I think I sent (emails to) 11 or 12 rescue operations -- human and animal. And these (animal agencies) were the only ones that replied,” the 51-year-old father told in a phone interview on Tuesday.

On the three-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami, Watanabe-Jin is speaking for the first time about his experience in Japan -- one that saw him put his health at enormous risk to save animals largely forgotten in the aftermath of the devastation.  

With the help of the Japan Cat Network, one of the agencies he volunteered with, Watanabe-Jin was able to obtain a clearance pass into the restricted area near Koriyama.

Once a week, he would drive into areas as close as 10 kilometres from the Fukushima plant, setting up feeding stations on the side of the road for left-behind cats and dogs. The goal was to draw the animals in, so he and his coworkers could then trap them.

At the time, authorities were warning just how dangerous it was to enter the areas in which Watanabe-Jin was working. But he said that never really fazed him.

“We needed to do this because they (the animals) would just start to multiple too much,” he said, adding that by 2012, many of the wild cats and dogs roaming the countryside were offspring of domestic pets that had been abandoned or separated from their owners during the disaster. 

The Japan Cat Network would nurse the animals back to health, then often release them back into the wild.

By the end of May, Watanabe-Jin began working with a much larger agency called Animal Friends Niigata.

Most of the animals Watanabe-Jin came across were in terrible shape due to radiation exposure; he said almost all of them suffered from debilitating skin conditions.

“They were dying. In my care, all my female dogs died from cancer.”

Watanabe-Jin said many of the animals were also aggressive, as many had never come in contact with humans.

Watanabe-Jin returned to Canada in June 2012, but headed back to Japan just a few months later.

This time he was paid by Animal Friends to capture and care for the animals, working from end of August to the end of December.

But it wasn’t just the animals who were showing the effects of radiation exposure: Watanabe-Jin said his hair began to fall out, and he was experiencing other symptoms, too.

A large growth was found in his lower lungs, he says, though he is still waiting for doctor’s results. He says he isn’t certain that the growth was caused by radiation.

He also believes that the loss of bone density in his teeth was caused by radiation exposure.  

“That’s one of the drawbacks of going… this (the symptoms) could be overexposure to radiation,” he said.

But Watanabe-Jin remains adamant that it’s work that needs to be done.

He plans to return to Japan next month, and says he will attempt to bring back several cats to find them homes in Canada.