Torrential rains, blazing wildfires and dire droughts strike more frequently and endanger more lives than ever before. But people aren’t the only victims—these disasters also threaten wildlife, companion animals and livestock.
That’s where the Disaster Response and Risk Reduction team at IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) comes in. Its goal is to reduce animal suffering before, during and after a disaster. For this team of seasoned emergency responders, 2022 is on track to be the busiest year ever.
“Disasters are hitting communities that are still in recovery from their last disaster,” says Shannon Walajtys, IFAW’s Director of Disaster Response and Risk Reduction. “Houses are still tarped, and public works infrastructure is still damaged, making these structures more vulnerable. We can barely keep up.”
The sharp rise in disasters is a direct result of the escalating impacts of climate change, she adds. Recognizing that human destruction of ecosystems is a root cause of climate change, IFAW invests in restoring ecosystem health and building resilience to lessen the frequency and severity of disasters.
Meanwhile, to save animals from these catastrophic events, IFAW focuses on being prepared. Walajtys says building animal rescue networks, consisting of local organizations that help animals in their communities, is key. “We complement that strategy with boots on the ground. We have local responders who have very specialized skill sets in animal care and control with all species of wildlife, companion animals and livestock.”
As climate-related disasters continue unabated, IFAW is tapping into its rescue networks and jumping into action to help animals worldwide. Here’s a peek at what the Disaster Response and Risk Reduction team has been up to in 2022.
Severe rains hit Australia’s southeast coast earlier this year, causing record flooding that persists even months later in some regions. Animals are among the many victims. Floodwater and mud displace wombats and echidnas from their burrows. Waters sweep away koalas and kangaroos, leaving them injured or killed. Orphaned joeys, alone and disoriented, call for their mothers.
When the floods began, IFAW rushed aid to partners and wildlife groups in hard-hit parts of Queensland and New South Wales. The organization has given emergency grants to local animal nonprofits and shelters, along with everything from food to generators to heartbeat simulators to support care for rescued animals.
Meanwhile, IFAW is giving aid in eastern Kentucky, where massive floods at the end of July devastated animals and communities. Within days of the flooding, the Disaster Response and Risk Reduction team deployed trained responders to help search for and rescue pets and other animals. The rescuers found animals floating on debris and trapped and injured by rushing flood waters and mudslides.
As the floodwaters in eastern Kentucky recede, IFAW continues to support shelters scrambling to house and feed stranded pets and reunite them with their owners. IFAW also is working to ensure that wildlife rehabilitators have the resources to rescue injured or displaced wild animals, help them recuperate and return them to the wild.
East Africa has endured four consecutive failed rainy seasons, most recently during March to May. Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia suffered their worst drought in four decades as a result.
The drought has hit Somaliland especially hard, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and decimating crops and livestock. Many animals have died from lack of food and water, and herders have sold many other animals, desperate to raise money to cover skyrocketing food and water prices. In response, IFAW partnered with a local charity to provide communities with emergency water for people and livestock. The charity also sends bales of hay to feed animals through the drought.
Endangered Grévy’s zebras are among the animals that the drought threatens. More than 90% of their dwindling population lives in the dry regions of northern Kenya—one of which hasn’t seen a drop of rain in three years. Livestock are quickly displacing the zebras amid increasingly scarce water and places to graze. To help save the zebras, IFAW has given emergency funding to a local nonprofit focused on protecting these endangered animals. Thanks to this money, the nonprofit has acquired thousands of bales of hay and the fuel to transport them to the zebras.
A massive underwater volcano erupted near the Pacific nation of Tonga in January, setting off a tsunami that forced evacuation of the islands. The tsunami and volcanic ash from the eruption damaged homes, roads, seaports, and energy and water supplies, along with the underwater phone and internet cables linking Tonga to the rest of the world. Some islands were almost entirely destroyed, and the devastation left people, pets and farm animals vulnerable.
In coordination with the Tongan government, IFAW gave emergency funding to distribute three months of essential veterinary aid to the main island, Tongatapu, and the outer islands. The grant helped thousands of animals, including dogs, cats, cattle and chickens.
In July, wildfires blazed in the Gironde region in southwest France, forcing almost 40,000 people from their homes. Inhabitants of the Cazaux district of Gironde had to leave without their pets and livestock, not knowing when they could return for their animals or if their animals would survive.
IFAW immediately contacted government authorities, partners and animal shelters to offer advice and emergency grants.
IFAW is no stranger to fires. Its recent fire responses include the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, and wildfires in North America. Even when IFAW is not on the ground during a disaster, the organization does crucial work building animal rescue networks among community organizations that can help animals and each other when disaster strikes.
No one can predict exactly when and where the next disaster will strike or how it will affect communities and animals. Without question, though, another catastrophe is never far away, and IFAW is already preparing for it. Just as this was being written, IFAW began supporting animal rescue and recovery in Pakistan in response to deadly flooding.
“The more we can build resilience at the community level, the less money, effort, tears and sweat we’re going to have to invest in response,” says Walajtys, noting IFAW’s strong focus on risk reduction.
IFAW also recently opened its first-ever Center of Excellence (CoE), with the aim of building animal rescue capacity around the globe. Located on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the IFAW CoE will offer intensive training in animal rescue to professional and volunteer field rescue personnel.
With dedication to rescuing animals during disasters and their aftermath, IFAW’s Disaster Response and Risk Reduction team is busier than ever saving wildlife, keeping pets with their families and helping communities recover.