12 Jan 2020

Kiwi volunteers helping fire-affected Australian animals

From The Weekend , 8:09 am on 12 January 2020

Animals fleeing the devastating Australian bushfires were like a tsunami, a New Zealand volunteer rescuing wildlife in New South Wales says. 

A kangaroo jumps in a field amidst smoke from a bushfire in Snowy Valley on the outskirts of Cooma

Photo: AFP

There are fears some of Australia's native species – like the Kangaroo Island dunnart – may even become extinct because of the fires.

Six volunteers -  a veterinarian, emergency managers, animal control officers and military paramedics - from Animal Evac New Zealand have flown to New South Wales to help with the rescue.

The trust specialises in animal evacuation in disaster situations and has been stationed in Bundanoon, south west of Sydney.

Animal Evac founder Steve Glassey, who is the former chief executive of Wellington SPCA, told RNZ's The Weekend the conditions had been extraordinarily challenging.

"To give it some context, the Australian fires [are] probably one of the worst or largest animal disasters in history since the ice age," Glassey said.

"There are so many hundreds of thousands, millions, maybe close to a billion animals that have perished in this disaster, so it's an extremely challenging event for the government of Australia. It's probably also the first time that the Australians have had to entertain international disaster response for animal welfare, so that in itself is a challenge and the New South Wales government is doing a doing a great job with the fire response as well."

Glassey described finding the animals as like looking for a needle in a haystack. 

"One of the things that the team is, I think, sort of struggling with is the fact that we know there are millions of animals out there and we go out there to rescue animals and we may sort of be able to find or locate a few and you sort of think 'well are we making a dent in this?' But the reality is that we might not be able to save the world, but we can hopefully make a difference here."

On the first day there, the team was based in the Blue Mountains with a local animal welfare agent who was licensed to use a tranquilliser gun to rescue kangaroos trying to flee the area.

Glassey said the team came across a number of dead kangaroos during their search, but they were able to help some of the injured.

"Most of them stayed reasonably sort of still, probably in more of a pain and panic state.

"It was like they were actually wanting us to help them rather than just flee. So by having a bit of safe distance we've been able to use experts with tranquilliser guns to immobilize them, chemically immobilize, and then we can approach the animal and treat it."

Images shared on social media has shown the cost to wildlife the fires have had, with estimates in the hundreds of millions possibly dead.

Glassey said the images he had seen looked like a tsunami of animals running away from the fire front.

"Sometimes the fires can be so fast those animals are all moving out and are in a large surge, but if there is boundary fencing they just get caught up against it and unfortunately perish." 

He said he had heard stories from people who had fled to the coast and taken refuge in the sea.

"They had to endure listening to the koalas that had fled the bush coming down to the beach line, they heard those koalas were screaming for help. Most people that were taking safe refuge in the water couldn't do anything apart from listen to those cries for help.

"That's why we're here, we're here to make sure that those koalas and kangaroos that have been affected by this catastrophic event have trained experts on the ground to help them. We have exhausted our financial resources, we would love to send another or larger contingent of specialists from New Zealand to this event. But we can only do that if we get the support of New Zealand and other donors to make that happen."

Glassey said, at this point, there was no end in sight.

"Look, it's absolutely devastating, this is an absolutely catastrophic event and the fires are still going and they'll continue to go for days if not longer. 

"That means that there are still going to be animals that are going to be impacted. On the bright side, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and the partner agencies, they've done a fantastic job providing really good, clear information for people to make sure the animals have been kept safe. So in terms of companion animals and stock, they're not as impacted as what the wildlife are."

Animal Evac New Zealand volunteers helping rescue wildlife from the Australian bushfires.

Photo: Facebook / Animal Evac New Zealand

Glassey said even when the fires were extinguished, the rehabilitation process for animals would be ongoing.

"That demand for world-wide rehabilitation is certainly there and it's been there for the last few months as the earlier fires stepped up.

"So yes they're going to need resources for that and there are organisations in Australia that are certainly helping with that. The challenge is ... how do we bring those animals out for those organizations to care when there is potentially a deficiency in trained responders that have the fire safety training and the experience to go onto a fire ground with the confidence of the local authorities.

"The issue is that there are people that wanted to go in and come over and deploy that don't have the training for this. And unfortunately, that's creating a secondary disaster for authorities and the sense that the overwhelming amount of spontaneous volunteers potentially distract them from being able to help and mobilise legitimate animal rescue organizations that are accredited."

Glassey said the fires in Australia were a timely reminder for New Zealanders about possibility of it happening here, especially after the Nelson fires at the start of 2019.

"I think that unless we start preparing in New Zealand, this could be us in times to come and it highlights the importance of emergency planning, funding and co-ordination to make sure there's resource, capacity, training and collaboration within New Zealand to make sure we can be one step ahead of these kinds of disasters."

Evac NZ's trip to Australia was supported by SAFE (Save Animals from Exploitation, New Zealand).

You can donate to their future work via givealittlepage.