The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


Accidental Heroine
Pet hotel entrepreneur saves hundreds of animals post-disaster

By Elizabeth Handover

Three years ago, in the days following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a phone call from a woman in distress catapulted Isabella Gallaon-Aoki into an unforeseen selfless and courageous rescue of hundreds of abandoned animals.

Gallaon-Aoki, who is part British and part Italian, originally came to Tokyo to learn Japanese. She met her husband here, and after several years moved with him to Niigata, his native home.

After having two children, she became interested in animal welfare, joined a local animal help group and got trained in animal rescue techniques. The animal group focused on saving as many abandoned animals as possible from the local welfare center, by getting them adopted or at least finding temporary foster homes.

After adopting a rescued dog of her own, Gallaon-Aoki personally observed how many animals were put down as the welfare center deadline hit before new homes could be found.

She became convinced that an animal shelter was the answer, as this would be more efficient and sustainable. It could save many more lives by providing a place to house animals for longer periods of time, until they could be adopted.

Isabella also saw a market need for a pet boarding facility. Many existing pet hotels, despite being expensive, only offered accommodation in small confined cages, and the care was unsatisfactory. Every time she travelled, she took her pets all the way down to Kobe, where they could have more space.

She felt that other pet owners, when given the opportunity, would naturally prefer to leave their pets in a spacious, pleasant environment with fresh air and opportunities for exercise.

This was exactly what Gallaon-Aoki and her husband were in an excellent position to offer; they could provide an enjoyable holiday for pets so their owners could enjoy their own trips with a clear conscience.

Gallaon-Aoki was also motivated to try her hand at an entrepreneurial venture, by establishing a profitable pet hotel business. This, in turn, could help fund an animal rescue shelter. Animal Garden Niigata was thus started.

All went well at first, business increased steadily, and the Animal Friends Japan shelter was set up shortly thereafter.

Call of duty
Then the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami hit.

Gallaon-Aoki’s first response to the disaster was to set off for Sendai and then go up to Iwate, to help animals in need. But when she got there, she found no animals to rescue. All had been swept away, together with their human owners.

Soon she started hearing reports about the situation in Fukushima. On March 21, a call came in from a woman whose dog had been left behind when the family was evacuated from Okuma. No one had been allowed to take pets, and evacuees had been told that they would be back in their homes within two to three days.

In reality, the family had been shipped out immediately to Nagasaki. The woman was crying with desperation as she described how her dog had been left chained up with no food or water. She begged Gallaon-Aoki to go to her house and rescue him.

With no thought for her own safety or the consequences of the actions she was about to take, Gallaon-Aoki immediately agreed to do whatever she could.

She realized that it would be hard to access the exclusion zone. But, having lived in Japan for many years, she gambled that barriers would be manned by police only during daytime hours. What she hadn’t reckoned on were the impassible mountain roads, which had been damaged or cut off by massive rock falls.

That first trip took many hours and involved inching along perilously narrow roads with no guardrails. This turned out to be more life-threatening than entering a radiation fallout zone. At nightfall, she successfully snuck in through a checkpoint, found the woman’s dog, and took it back to Niigata with her.

In the weeks that followed, the calls for pet rescues came flooding in, and she kept returning to Fukushima. She ended up rescuing a staggering 700 animals altogether, including cats, dogs, ducks, chickens, rabbits, and even a pig. This was far beyond anything that Gallaon-Aoki had expected.

She reached out to the community for funding, and many people kindly supported the shelter with donations, which made the huge project possible for the time being.

Gallaon-Aoki’s initial plan had been to take in the animals temporarily and care for them until their owners could reclaim them. She hoped to find homes for unclaimed animals in due course. But as time went by, she was faced with growing difficulties.

Many pet owners never returned to claim their animals, and very few people were willing to take in a pet that they feared had been irradiated. Furthermore, month by month, donations were drying up. Thus, a project intended as a short-term solution became a long-term logistical and financial burden.

Yet, Gallaon-Aoki has stayed true to her courage and convictions. Through dire necessity, she has honed her entrepreneurial skills, using creativity and resilience to keep the shelter going for over three years and to care for her huge extended “family” still in residence.

The accidental heroine is putting her entrepreneurial skills to good use in rebuilding her business. Times are changing, the economy is finally growing, and Gallaon-Aoki is gradually bringing her pet hotel back to commercial success.

With an increasing number of people going abroad for vacations, she is confident that more and more clients will employ her services.

There are many beautiful pets still waiting for homes at the shelter.

For more information on pets for adoption, visit To learn about the countryside accommodation at Isabella Gallaon-Aoki’s Animal Garden boarding facility, go to, or email Gallaon-Aoki directly at



Elizabeth Handover is co-chair of the ACCJ Women in Business Committee and president of Intrapersona K.K., Lumina Learning Asia Partner.