Animal rescue in extreme weather events

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animal rescue in extreme weather events
SES volunteer David King helping a stranded horse. Photo: Supplied

It is estimated that up to half a million cattle and countless other stock, domestic animals and wildlife perished during the floods that devastated great chunks of the eastern seaboard earlier this year. While many drowned, some froze. Others were found in such poor condition, they had to be humanely euthanised.

But among all the carnage there was also stories of hope where dedicated individuals from groups such as Vets For Compassion, the State Emergency Service (SES), volunteer rescue services and animal rehabilitation charities worked tirelessly to save the lives of livestock, domesticated animals and wildlife. 

Changing behaviours

In some instances, animals themselves adapted their typical behaviours to get themselves out of harm’s way.

Such was the case in South East Queensland where rats and frogs were filmed sitting atop an eastern brown snake floating in a water-filled rain tank, or where a bull-mastiff cross from Lismore was rescued by Fire and Rescue NSW from a tree five metres above ground, three days after being washed away in a torrent of water. 

Dr Elaine Ong who, as one of a 43-strong team of volunteer vets and nurses with Vets For Compassion spent three weeks in the Northern Rivers region at the peak of the floods, says she encountered numerous examples of this.

She recounts a farmer in Woodburn who developed a healthy respect for his cows after learning his mother cows had pushed their calves onto the arm of an excavator to save their offspring from rising flood levels. The cows had then propped their bodies against the arm to ensure the calves remained safe from the water.

Dr Ong says there were important lessons for us all in seeing the way animals whose lives were at risk interacted with others. 

“We also heard of cats saving their owners by waking them [when the water levels rose]. They showed how miserable [humans] are as a species; the animals tried to save each other,” she says.

Volunteer rescue operators Warren Turner, the SES local commander for the Southern Highlands, and Dylan Whitelaw, the inspector and unit commander of the SES Moss Vale unit have both been involved in numerous animal rescues over the years but say the rescue of several donkeys during the 2022 flood events was one of the more challenging.

Alerted to the plight of four donkeys caught in flood waters on an island in the Wingecarribee River, a part of the Hawkesbury–Nepean catchment, the pair were part of a crew that spent hours submerged in icy waters battling five-degree air temperatures and attempting to convince the drove of four to move to safety.

Preparation the best defence

But it’s not just domesticated animals who have been impacted by the adverse conditions. 

IFAW wildlife campaign manager Josey Sharrad says Australia is seeing firsthand how climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as the floods. 

She says the impacts have been relentless for Australia’s iconic wildlife who have barely had the chance to recover from prolonged drought, catastrophic bushfires, and now several record-breaking floods. 

Sharrad says that while extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense, Australian wildlife has always had some resilience to extreme weather events. 

“However, we are seeing an increase in the intensity and frequency of these disasters as a result of climate change. Recognising the importance of planning and preparing for extreme weather events is vital for helping species cope with climate change. Building resilience to extreme events may also help to reduce the vulnerability of humans too.”

More than one threat

The SES’s Turner says extreme weather events aside, typically his unit attends around four large animal rescues and countless domestic animal rescues each year. These include everything from injured koalas stuck up trees to horses needing to be winched out of mud.

While policies differ between states, the State Rescue Board of NSW’s rules dictate that in terms of priority, domestic animals such as dogs, cats and birds, are entitled to the same level of care as humans, he says.

“If the two were together, the human would get the priority but generally they’re treated the same.”

In most cases, when the rescue involves a large animal, the first thing the rescuers will do is attempt to bring in a vet. Having worked out a rescue plan, the vet will then sedate the trapped animal.

Depending on the type of sedation the vet gives, the rescue team are required to work fast before the sedation wears off.

Generally, by the time his unit is alerted to a rescue, the compromised animal is pretty exhausted, however in many cases, the trapped animal can still pose a major threat.

“One year we had four horse rescues. Of those, the owners of three of them got injured trying to help their animal so we had to call ambulances in. It just goes to show how dangerous it is,” Whitelaw says. 

Change afoot

Despite the high success rate and high demands of the job, large animal rescue in all its forms has been treated “fairly poorly by all emergency services over a very long time”, Turner says. 

He argues that it’s only through the campaigning of various SES members that its importance is now being recognised at the state rescue level. Even more so hopefully with the launch of a new trans-Tasman organisation that aims to improve incident management involving animals. 

Launched earlier this year, the Animal Emergency Incident Management Network Australia and New Zealand (AEIMN ANZ) brings together veterinarians, emergency responders and policymakers to develop and promote safer practices at incidents involving domestic animals and encompasses all aspects of incident management involving animals to improve animal welfare outcomes.

Its vice-chair is large animal rescue expert David King, a NSW State Emergency Service Hawkesbury deputy unit commander and co-chair of the NSW SES General Land Rescue Capability Development Group. 

Under King’s guidance, AEIMN ANZ’s first official act was to develop a Large Animal Rescue Operations guideline, which details the overarching operational and best practice that emergency service organisations should consider when planning and responding to incidents involving large animals.

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