March 24, 2011 -- Animal shelter owner Ryo Taira has seen plenty of struggling dogs and cats since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but even he was caught off guard when he learned of a small porpoise in big trouble.
Taira responded to reports that a finless porpoise had been spotted in a flooded rice paddy near Sendai, over a mile from the ocean. The 3-foot long animal had apparently been stranded there by the tsunami's massive wave.
Taira located the animal, lifting it out of the water with just his arms. The porpoise was covered in wet towels, taken to the beach using a makeshift rig and then released back into the sea.
Finless porpoises are so-named because they lack a dorsal fin. They are native to Asia and can grow to five feet in length.
"I was not sure whether what I was doing was the right thing to do, but when I saw it swimming away into the ocean, I felt glad," Taira told the AP. "I hope it is doing well and will be reunited with its family. I think what I did was good. Otherwise, it would be left here dying."
Marine mammal stranding experts said today that Taira took the right steps, given the circumstances.
"It sounds like they did the right thing, keeping it wet and cool and making sure it could breathe," said Blair Mase, a coordinator for NOAA's Marine Mammal Stranding Network in the southeast.
Mase and her team help to rescue hundreds of mammals in the U.S. every year, including dolphins that were stranded inland during Hurricane Katrina.
Given that the porpoise had been outside of its natural habitat for over a week, she said the animal was likely stressed, hungry and probably running out of time.
"This is a very fortunate event. What we've found with Hurricane Katrina was that it was such a hopeful story. There's so much devastation, and people are so thrilled to hear these animal stories of survival."
Taira Dedicated to Helping Disaster's Animal Victims
For his part, Taira has been working tirelessly to help the disaster's animal victims. The owner of a pet store and animal shelter has marshaled his team to take in stray dogs, and they're also offering free care for pets whose owners are too burdened trying to rebuild their own lives.
"Evacuees are under a stressful situation working on reconstruction and searching for the missing family members. I think they cannot really have much energy to pay attention to their pets. So, we wish to do what we can to help," Taira said.
News of the porpoise rescue certainly brings to mind the remarkable group of eight dolphins that grabbed worldwide attention in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The dolphins, from the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Miss., were washed out of their tank and went missing for two weeks. Later, they turned up alive and together, seeming to look to their trainers for help.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.