Australia — For Maria Mercurio, 2009 will always be the year of Victoria’s bushfires. She describes their impact on animals in affected areas as horrible beyond imagination.
The Chief Executive Officer of RSPCA Victoria will be talking about the tragedy, when addressing the Royal New Zealand SPCA’s conference in Christchurch on Saturday 2nd May. Ms Mercurio will also be visiting Auckland on 4th and 5th of May (see below for contact details).
“Up to a million wildlife animals are thought to have perished as a result of the fires, along with an estimated 13,000 commercial farming animals, including sheep, beef and dairy cattle, goats, poultry and pigs.
“In addition, nearly 700,000 fish died in commercial fish farms. And all this was on top of the loss of life amongst domestic animals, with all the heartache this has caused their human families,” she says.
RSPCA Victoria was involved in rescue operations from virtually the start of the emergency, with inspectors, veterinarians, nurses and shelter staff all active close to the front line, along with colleagues from Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia.
In total, the RSPCA helped approximately 2,500 animals, including alpaca, cattle, cats, birds, dogs, horses, poultry, sheep and wildlife during the course of the crisis, whilst many other animals were rescued by wildlife carers. There was also a major relocation exercise, as animals in RSPCA shelters close to the affected areas were moved to make room for those found wandering, traumatised or injured.
“When you saw the devastation, it was amazing that anyone or anything survived. Even if they weren’t burned alive, animals often fell victim to the intense heat or to starvation. And many of those that managed to live through the inferno, burned their paws, as they emerged from their hiding places onto the sizzling hot ground,” says Ms Mercurio.
“For people who fled their homes and lost everything, the worse thing was often not knowing what had happened to their pets. However, some animals managed to hide successfully from the flames and there are still reports of pets suddenly reappearing. In the last week, we’ve learned of a family whose house was destroyed but who made several trips back in the hope of finding their cat and have now succeeded.
“If the scale of the tragedy was overwhelming, so was the community’s response. Thus far, we’ve filled 17 shipping containers with towels, blankets, dog and cat food, stock feed, litter trays, bridles and other gifts and have raised (AU) $3.8 million to help animal survivors of the fires. It’s breathtaking that we were able to raise this sum at the same time as $300 million was being raised on behalf of human victims of the tragedy.
“Most of the domestic animals found running around after the fires have now been reunited with their owners, although there’s still around 40 that haven’t been claimed,” she says, adding that one memorable case concerned a cat so badly burned that it was almost unrecognisable. However, its owner was able to establish its identity by the little green collar around its neck. One of the first noises the cat made was in response to its owner. Both cat and owner are now believed to have recovered from their ordeal.
“One lesson we learned from the tragedy was the importance of animal welfare agencies being included in all government emergency plans. We should have been officially activated through the Department of Primary Industry’s emergency plan. But that didn’t happen. So I just took the decision that we were going in. It was tough job for our entire team but I’ve no regrets about taking that decision,” she says.