With a land area nearing the size of England impacted by fires, there has been much international focus on the sheer scale of destruction – of precious bushland, properties, and ecosystems. Conservative estimates of more than one billion native animals killed have been met with shock, heartache, and utter helplessness.
It is difficult for the human brain to process a number so massive – it becomes an abstraction, almost meaningless in terms of communicating what that means for the animals affected. But when vision of dead or injured animals inevitably confronts us, and the reality for each individual animal impacted by fire becomes all too real, it is understandable that our brains attempt to protect us. To allow us to consider the experience of one suffering animal and then multiply it by two… three… four… all the way up to 1.25 billion … the sheer scale of suffering is simply too much for our minds to comprehend, and our hearts to bear.
It is during these times of incredible collective anguish that we see the very best of humanity shine. We have spoken at length about the veterinarians, community members, wildlife carers and rescuers who have been on the ground since day one, working in the most difficult of circumstances, united in their courage and compassion, and their will to alleviate suffering and save lives. In the darkest of times, they have given us glimmers of desperately-needed hope with every life they have saved, every animal they have reached, and every moment we know they are out there, doing the work that so few of us could bear to do.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – these people are heroes.
Beyond the immediate rescue efforts, animals with burn injuries require a tremendous amount of specialised, intensive care that can go on for weeks and months. And so the huge outpouring of support to Australian wildlife organisations is not only welcomed, but very much needed, as the work to rehabilitate rescued animals will continue well beyond fire season.
At Animals Australia, we’ve been fortunate enough to be in a position that we were able to assist with these recovery efforts. Though we are not exactly known for our work with wildlife, we recognised the enormity of this situation, the gaps in the government response, and importantly, our responsibility as an animal protection organisation to do whatever we could to make sure support got to where it needed to be, and quickly.
This involved acting as a fundraising intermediary, helping to get money in the door and straight back out to individuals and groups on the ground. Through our networks, we’ve been able to collaborate with and coordinate rescue teams, unencumbered by bureaucracy and willing to do whatever is needed – to get people, veterinary supplies, resources and animal feed into fire-stricken areas, and providing direct and immediate financial support to fast-track rescue and relief efforts across the country.
Sadly, natural disasters at this scale are likely to be an increasing and ongoing challenge for Australians, a country being touted as “ground zero” for both the impacts of climate change and policy uncertainty – with increasingly severe natural disasters expected to be part of our new reality. Disaster response at this scale is a new area for Animals Australia. It’s been a busy and often challenging time for our team, it’s been a time of great learning. and it has given us a renewed appreciation for the power of compassion, and the unwavering support of the many wonderful people we are honoured to be able to connect with across the world.
The response to Australia’s bushfire crisis has also revealed that the conversation around the devastating suffering and loss of life is missing something. Or, more to the point, someone.
An estimated ten million sheep and cattle have died in the bushfire crisis.
Again, to think of them in terms of numbers killed is to protect ourselves from truly grasping the depth and scale of their suffering, a perfectly reasonable response from any compassionate person. But the conversation surrounding these animals and their experiences, during and after natural disasters, tells us a lot about a system in which we all live and participate in — a system in which an individual’s ‘worth’ is constrained by our limited rules about how we classify them.
These rules at their simplest divide animals into two main groups — “friend” or “food” (but consider other ways we think about animals differently based on the category we put them in – terms such as “native” or “feral”, or “companion” or “livestock” – and the different feelings and values that are conjured by these words). This is a belief system we have inherited that churns away just below the surface of our society, that remains largely unacknowledged and thus, unchallenged — but it underpins our treatment of the millions of animals we share this planet with.
We have been born into a system that allows little consideration to be given to the experience of the individual, despite all animals sharing the capacity to suffer.