Treating and feeding victims of Australia bushfires

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On 19 December 2015, a man-lit bushfire that was started in Scotsburn, near Ballarat in Victoria, burned close to 5,000 hectares, consuming homes, sheds, cars, tractors, trailers, fences and more. Thousands of animals including pets, livestock and wildlife perished or were seriously wounded.

When the area was deemed safe, a response was initiated by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), the State government department that responds to bushfires and other emergencies. IFAW worked with vet Elaine Ong who joined one of the wildlife response teams. Here is Elaine’s account of her experience.--JS

Scotsburn is home to thousands of native wild animals, mainly Eastern grey kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, birds and possums. Hundreds of them have died from burns or injuries or worse, face the prospect of a slow death by starvation and from infected burns.

The final tally of livestock lost to the fire remains unknown.

My team worked on private properties and farms. We picked up burned animals that were shuffling and walking on the back of their feet, due to pain, often alone or at the very back of a pack.

We were touched by the overwhelming positive response and assistance from the local community, many of whom had suffered losses themselves. We met one man who had lost everything apart from his three cats and was still concerned about the wildlife being fed.

Many of the animals that survived were starving and emaciated, attempting to eat soil out of desperation. We distributed much-needed hay and sweet potatoes around the dams of private properties.

It is heartening to see some healthy animals come back.

Due to the amazing support and teamwork we were able to humanely and efficiently rescue large numbers of animals. Sadly many had to be euthanased as they were so badly burned; at least they were spared weeks of suffering. We saw mortally-wounded mothers trying to tend to their joeys, which was heartbreaking.

We came across many orphaned joeys, who group together for protection, making them easy to capture. It was an exhausting, often emotionally draining experience and those animals we managed to save gave us hope and the motivation to continue.

Wildlife is often the forgotten victim of wildfires. In my last 15 years assisting in bushfires, there are always hundreds or thousands of animals left to die from their burns, complications from burns or starvation.

During the Black Saturday fires, I was capturing animals that were still alive with burns and fractures three months after the fires – these animals were suffering abominably and struggling to survive.

Sadly wildlife is not seen in the same moral dimension as other animals, despite the pain and suffering that has been inflicted on them due to human flagrancy or an effect from the environment.

Denying them some effort of treatment or euthanasia by blaming natural disaster is disingenuous. There is no difference between the suffering and fear of a dog/cat and a kangaroo. We see them weep; they fear and they suffer.

--EO

Elaine is Principal of Box Hill Veterinary Hospital, representative of the AVA and a member of the Victorian Emergency Animal Welfare committee. She has been responding to wildlife emergencies for the last 15 years, including the Black Saturday fires in Victoria. 

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