Animals are often the silent and overlooked victims of emergencies. In October 2013, the Blue Mountains experienced its worst bushfires in over 30 years. While the number of animal deaths is not known it is believed that hundreds of companion animals died in these fires. The long-term impact of the loss of these animals on their owners and families has been recognised by groups and community members assisting with recovery. Large numbers of native wildlife were also injured or died during the fires, while many of those who survived faced loss of habitat, pollution of water supplies, greater competition for resources, displacement and increased predation from feral animals.
“People’s relationships with animals is so important, and it impacts on their behaviour during a disaster e.g. people may refuse to evacuate without their animals or risk their lives to save them. Research shows that people may experience intense grief and trauma at the loss of animals during natural disasters, while guilt and anger may also be experienced by owners who were forced to abandon their animals. Veterinarians, animal welfare workers, wildlife carers and first responders can all be deeply affected when dealing with suffering animals.”
“Research shows that for some children the trauma of losing a pet or other animal can be similar to them losing a sibling. So, it’s a really significant loss if they’ve also lost their home and possessions as well. Attachment to animals can be especially important for the more vulnerable members of our community, in particular children, the elderly and those with disabilities, following an emergency. There has to be more awareness of the impact of animal loss on people. For people who went through bushfires and lost animals, a lot of them didn’t get very much support from the community. It’s very important for counsellors to be more aware of that.”
Quote from a survey we ran – “The media praised the RFS on their wonderful work saying no lives were lost but it was not true. I lost my family [of 6 cats and a bird] in that fire, as did others and their lives were not acknowledged.”
Deborah Greenhill, grade 6 teacher at the Winmalee Public School: – “The loss of pets was a universal story in our community. Even if they didn’t have loss directly, children heard the stories of loss. Whilst thankfully there was no loss of human life there was loss of animal life and that was felt very deeply.”
“We started the Blue ARC group in 2015 after we became aware of the impact of the bushfires on animals, animal owners and the people who work with, and care for, animals. We are still very active, especially during the bushfire danger period up here. Our core goals are to improve outcomes for animals in emergencies, and improve community awareness of the need for all animals to be included in local emergency preparedness, planning and response. We also want to improve community safety, knowledge and resilience through education and information sharing and raise awareness of the impact of animal loss on people.”
Blue ARC has completed research projects and produced community engagement materials like posters, flyers and booklets about how to keep your animals safe in an emergency, which has been done in collaboration with the Blue Mountains Resilience and Preparedness Group and the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC. We have printed and donated these and other emergency preparedness materials, which have been distributed during Get Ready events through RFS stations, vet clinics and neighbourhood centres.
We’ve taken photos for WIRES, given talks and radio interviews, run stalls at expos, all to try and get the word out about how community members can assist with preparedness and recovery efforts in the region. We also run the Blue ARC Facebook group, where we share information and resources.
We have been actively involved with the local council, emergency services organisations and recovery committees to share our research results and help raise awareness of the many issues involved with supporting animals and animal owners in the Blue Mountains region. This year we have been invited to be part of a Blue Mountains Wildlife working group to help support and improve the outcomes for wildlife in the region.
In 2017 We also ran the “My Favourite Animal” school art competition. This competition was run at the Winmalee Public School in 2017 to celebrate children’s art and to acknowledge the importance of animals in children’s lives. All entries were included in a book designed and printed by Springwood Printing.