Hell & high water hit Down Under

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2009:
MELBOURNE–Dozens of fast-spreading bushfires, many of them
believed to have been set by arsonists, killed countless animals
and hundreds of humans who tried to save their homes and animals in
drought-stricken northeastern Victoria state, Australia during the
first weekend of February 2009.
Among the first 181 known human fatalities were five
prominent animal advocates and two young sisters who tried
unsuccessfully to evacuate their horses [see page 18]. More than 200
rural Australians were missing in a burned region larger than
Luxembourg, pending searches of rubble that remained smouldering for
as long as a week.

The eventual human death toll was expected to exceed 400.
At least 20,000 sheep were killed in two of the first fires
of the series. As more fires broke out, public officials and news
media found themselves unable to keep estimates of livestock losses
Two animal shelters were razed, Wildlife Victoria initially
reported, then bumped the number to four. The best known,
Wildhaven, operated by Stella and Alan Reid, “was a safe, peaceful
paradise for all creatures and especially for kangaroos,” e-mailed
Teresa Buss-Carden of Australians for Wildlife, a subcommittee of
the World League for Protection of Animals. “Every time I spotted
Stella’s e-mails I knew that I was in for a beautiful treat. Her
affectionate images of kangaroos, usually embraced by gentle light,
always had a soothing effect on my sore soul.”
“A lot of wildlife carers have lost their homes and
facilities and in some cases their lives,” Wildlife Protection
Association of Australia president Pat O’Brien told Stephen Coates of
Agence France-Presse on February 9. “We’re not seeing a lot of
injured animals yet because the fires were so hot the animals were
killed on the spot. It will be ages before we can get into some of
the affected areas,” O’Brien predicted, “and by the time we do,
any injured animals will be dead.”
Royal SPCA of Australia chief executive Maria Mercurio,
however, directed the RSPCA to use the time between the worst of the
firestorm and rescuers gaining access to the area to prepare for one
of the organization’s biggest relief efforts ever.
On February 10 the RSPCA was allowed into some fire zones.
“Most animals, like resident humans, have died,” veterinarian and
retired RSPCA president Hugh Wirth told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Radiant heat
killed them and then their bodies were burnt. Most who survived
cannot be repaired.”
“The vet clinic at Kinglake was one of the casualties,”
reported Daniel Lewis of the Sydney Morning Herald, “but vets have
established temporary triage hospitals in Kinglake, Kinglake West
and Whittlesea to treat injured wildlife and domestic animals.
Fences and pasture have been destroyed, so housing and feeding
animals–particularly horses–is proving difficult.”
“Kangaroo corpses lie scattered by the roadsides while
wombats who survived the wildfire’s onslaught emerged from their
burrows to find blackened earth and nothing to eat,” reported
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau. “Kangaroos who survived
are suffering from burned feet. Hundreds of burned, stressed and
dehydrated animals–including kangaroos, koalas, lizards and
birds–have already arrived at shelters across the scorched region.
Rescuers have doled out antibiotics, pain relievers and fluids to
the critters, but some of the severely injured were euthanized.”
Vets Beyond Borders volunteer Chris Barton told Lewis that
most kangaroos, wombats and koalas had to be euthanized because of
eye and paw injuries from which they had little chance of successful
“You have got to be careful you don’t increase the
suffering,” Barton explained. “Animals could be treated, but often
die three weeks later, and you have put them through agony.”
“Animals can’t go through the months of rehabilitation needed
to overcome serious burns,” agreed Australian Veterinary
Association president Mark Lawrie, a veteran of bushfire response in
his former job as chief vet for the RSPCA in New South Wales.
“Animals go through hell just like people, but people see the light
at the end of the tunnel.”
Victorian Advocates for Animals president Lawrence Pope told
Gelineau that volunteers “filled 10 giant bins with 2,300 flying
foxes who succumbed to heat stroke. Volunteers tried to save the
bats by giving them fluids and keeping them cool, Pope said, but
the creatures were simply too stressed.”
But there were some success stories. More than 160 pets
found alive in the fire zones were housed in emergency shelters set
up by Animal Aid, reported Megan McNaught of the Melbourne Herald
“We have a wallaby joey who has crispy fried ears because he
stuck his head out of his mum’s pouch and lost all his whiskers and
cooked up his nose,” Wildlife Victoria president Jon Rowdon told
The most popular animal survivor was Sam, a female koala
with burnt paws who was found by firefighter David Tree during a
backburning operation near Mirboo North.
“I could see she had sore feet and was in trouble, so I
pulled over the fire truck,” recounted Tree to McNaught of the
Herald Sun and Rohan Sullivan of Associated Press. “She just plonked
herself down on her bum and looked at me like ‘put me out of my
misery.’ I yelled for a bottle of water. I unscrewed the cap,
tipped it up on her lips and she just took it naturally. She kept
reaching for the bottle, almost like a baby. She drank three
bottles. The most amazing part was when she grabbed my hand.”
Another firefighter videotaped the incident on a cell
telephone. The video became a worldwide hit.
Taken to the Mountain Ash Wildlife Shelter, Sam was put on
an intravenous drip and given antibiotics and pain relief.
“She is lovely–very docile,” caregiver Jenny Shaw told
McNaught, “and she already has an admirer. A male koala keeps
putting his arms around her. She will need regular attention and it
will be a long road to recovery, but she should be able to be
released back into the wild in about five months.”
Queensland floods
While drought contributed to the devastation in Victoria,
Cyclone Ellie on January 31, 2009 and a smaller cyclone that hit a
week later caused some of the worst flooding on record in the Gulf of
Carpentaria region of northern Queensland.
“Tens of thousands of cattle have been left to starve because
owners cannot drop feed to them and state authorities say they are
powerless to act,” reported Padraic Murphy of The Australian on
February 6. “In many cases, livestock have moved hundreds of
kilometres from their stations, which means identifying their owners
is difficult. And with much of the area under water, station owners
have no feed and many of the animals have been left to die.”
Crocodiles were reported on the streets of Normanton, and a
five-foot croc was hit by a car in Townsville but survived with
broken teeth and an eye injury, for which he was treated, said the
Townsville Bulletin.
Aerial photos showed hundreds of kangaroos huddled on

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.