Livestock disasters show limits of humane response
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2006:
ADDIS ABABA, FRESNO, SURAT, VISAKHAPATNAM–Summer 2006
disasters on three continents demonstrated both the vulnerability of
livestock to fast-changing global weather patterns and the limited
capacity of the humane community to help animals in agricultural
Dairy cattle were most visibly hurt.
In Ethiopia the crisis involved drought-weakened desert
cattle suddenly having to cope with fast-rushing high water.
Along both the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea coasts of India,
cattle well-adapted to the drought-and-monsoon cycle were imperiled
in part because they are now kept in unnaturally dense numbers in
floodplains surrounding fast-growing cities.
In central California, the crisis involved Holstein dairy
cattle, bred and hormonally stimulated to produce more than three
times as much milk apiece as the typical Ethiopian or Indian cow.
Holsteins have the bone structure to carry the additional
liquid weight–at least through a few pregnancies and milk production
cycles–because they are a northern breed, who evolved body mass to
cope with winter snows and wind chill.
In hot climates, extra body mass and liquid weight means
they have difficulty cooling off, especially if unable to get enough
water. California dairy farmers use fans and machines that spray a
fine water mist to keep their Holsteins cool, but the technology was
not enough this year, as the air temperature in Fresno, near the
center of the Central Valley, soared to 113 degrees Fahrenheit.
More than 25,000 dairy cattle died on industrial-sized farms
between Redding and Bakersfield during the last two weeks of July,
California Dairy Campaign president Andy Zylstra told Agence
France-Presse. An estimated 120 cattle per day died in San Joaquin
Regional milk production dropped 25%, the Land O’Lakes
Creamery in Tulare reported. The $5.4 billion California dairy
industry lost about $1 billion in cattle and milk output, but
farmers who kept their cows alive enjoyed higher raw milk prices.
Poultry suffered in even greater numbers, including at least
700,000 chickens and 160,000 turkeys, but hidden from view in closed
Animal welfare organizations noted the developing crisis in
electronic bulletins, but were not asked for help–and even if
asked, the entire animal welfare infrastructure of the region may
have fewer assets than some of the afflicted factory farms.
The scant news coverage of the California disaster focused on
carcasses piling up far faster than pet food companies could render
them. Eventually Fresno County declared a state of emergency,
allowing farmers to dump cattle carcasses in landfills.
From drought to flood
The drought in California contrasted with the watery scenes
in Ethiopia and India, whose droughts came earlier in the year.
At least 10,000 cattle, sheep, and goats died in February
and March in the Borana region of Ethiopia, according to Agence
France Press, leaving herding families desperate to keep the few
animals they had left. That set up the drama that followed after
mid-August flash floods killed at least 900 lowland Ethiopians and
“Stranded on hillocks by the floodwaters, herders in the
southwestern town of Omerate leaned on sticks and stared across the
virtual sea separating them from their cows and goats,” Reuters
“Pleading with them to leave, rescuers on boats brought food
and supplies to the encircled residents in the town near the Kenyan
border, where the Omo River burst its banks, killing 364 people,
many while they were sleeping,” Reuters added.
“They are encircled by flood water and they are facing
certain death unless they are rescued, but they have refused to
budge,” said relief operations director Major Solomon
“Survival without cattle is meaningless. I would prefer to
die than lose my cattle. No milk, no life. No cattle, no life,”
explained displaced herder Awala Rendela.
The stranded herders mistrusted official promises that lost
animals would be replaced. “We hope that they will heed the call and
register the animals lost in the flood,” said district administrator
Dirma Gmewenya. “We have no means to rescue cattle.”
“We are afraid that this great loss of both humans and
animals will continue in the other parts of the nation that have
great dams and rivers,” Homeless Animals Protection Society of
Ethiopia cofounder Efrem Legese told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “I know very
well the geography and demography around the Omo River. That shows me
the continuity of the problem.
“We are sad that we could not participate in saving lives,”
Legese added. Operating the first nonprofit dog and cat
sterilization clinic in Addis Ababa, HAPS is far from the flooding,
and has no resources for disaster relief, but both HAPS cofounders,
Legese and Hana Kifle, formerly held wildlife conservation jobs in
the afflicted region.
The unusually heavy rain in the Ethiopian highlands that
precipitated the floods may have been due to changing global weather
patterns, but Girma Feyissa of the newspaper Fortune hinted that the
deaths and damage resulted from reduced attention to donkeys, who
are still the mainstay of Ethiopian transportation.
In former emperor Haile Selassie’s time, Feyissa recalled,
donkeys running with their ears laid back warned humans of
approaching storms and floods.
As many as 500 people were killed, and more than two million
were displaced by monsoon flooding in India. The monsoons are an
annual event, and the history of Indian civilization is largely a
history of trying to retain enough water from the monsoons to survive
the dry season, but traditionally monsoon rains were relatively
gentle, if heavy, and catastrophic floods were relatively rare
until the frequency and severity of tropical storms began a marked
increase in recent years.
More than 100,000 animals were at risk in mid-August in 5,412
flooded villages surrounding Visakhapatnam, e-mailed Visakha SPCA
founder Pradeep Kumar Nath.
Nath initiated outreach to villages in the Srikakulam and
Vizianagaram coastal plains and wetlands on July 22, trying to
reinforce their response capacity just before the worst of the rains
hit. Many of the villages also received Visakha SPCA help after the
December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
“We treated foot and mouth disease, helped village dogs,
provided feed, and explained to the villagers the use of the
medicines and the dosages that they need to continue to give to many
hundreds of animals,” Nath told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “We also educated
them about preventive measures and provided flyers in the local
After the flooding started, “We will probably face just
sheer daunting rescue activities,” Nath anticipated.
Nath guessed right, as 38 villages in Srikakulam were
isolated by flooding, but the Visakha SPCA by then had little way to
Having recently rebuilt the Visakha SPCA headquarters, after
it was inundated by a September 2005 typhoon, Nath did not
anticipate that it would take another hit so soon. Yet it did.
Landslides killed five people nearby, and 25 people were reported
“The shelter landscape has been altered,” Nath e-mailed on
August 4. “At least 57 trees have been uprooted. Trees have fallen
and destroyed the roofs of our Animal Birth Control program dog area.
Our laborers have not come back to work,” being preoccupied with
repairing damage to their homes, “so all projects are on hold. One
of our drivers is down with a fever. The cattle are not well. Two
have died. But the situation is not as bad as last year,” Nath
added, “because our new structures have kept away the mud which is
so hard on their hooves. Still, 180 cattle do not have a shelter.”
After losing electrical power, the shelter staff had to pump
30,000 litres of water per day for the cattle by hand.
“There are many clippings in the local press,” Nath noted,
“that remind people that animals require help during these crisis
times as well.”
On the far side of India, e-mailed Sarah Pickering of the
World Society for the Protection of Animals, WSPA funded the
Ahmendabad-based Animal Help Foundation to send two teams of 12
veterinarians each to treat approximately 20,000 animals suffering
from the effects of flooding. They expected to help about 500
animals per day, mostly cattle and work animals.
The Animal Help subsidiary Animal Help in Emergency And
Disaster, Team AHEAD for short, is the first charity in India
formed specifically to do animal disaster relief.
The city of Surat may have been worst hit–and the flooding
revived bad memories. Academy for Disaster Management, Education,
Planning and Training director U. Gauthamadas warned through local
media that, “The spectre of the 1994 plague looms large,” because
of poor sanitation that encouraged a rat population explosion.
Normally street dogs control rats in India, but Surat
officials poisoned the local street dogs, leading to the worst
outbreak of bubonic plague worldwide of the past 41 years.
Officially, 57 people died and 693 were confirmed to have had
plague, but more than 6,000 were treated for plague symptoms.
Surat is still not a healthy place to do post-monsoon relief
work, People for Animals/Mumbai managing trustee Dharmesh Solanki
found, having to withdraw due to a high fever after only one day of
assisting the local animal rescue organization PRAYAS.
“More than 90% of the city was underwater during the floods,”
Solanki reported. “Thousands of pigs, dogs, cows, buffaloes,
goats, etc. perished.”
Solanki found “dead pigs lying near the railway station,”
and “a pig who had given birth to at least eight piglets near the
railway track. I tried to shift the piglets to a safer area, but
the mother pig was too aggressive,” Solanki said.
Solanki treated for dogs for minor injuries and fed them,
before becoming too ill to continue.