News & Press: NZVA news

Into the Ark

Wednesday, 12 June 2019   (0 Comments)
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VetScript Editor's pick: June 2019

In early February, after the outbreak of major fires near Nelson, the nearby Richmond Showgrounds took on an unanticipated role: it became a ‘land-based ark’ for hundreds of animals evacuated from the affected valleys. Matt Philp reports on the veterinary response to the emergency, including the efforts of animal rescue teams, shelter providers and local veterinarians who volunteered their time.


Carolyn Press-McKenzie began her Waitangi Day picking out a frock to wear for a tea-with-the-Governor-General event, and ended it flying hurriedly to Nelson to help with animals affected by the fires raging south of the city. The co-founder of animal shelter charity Helping You Help Animals (HUHA) became a key player in the animal welfare response to the fires, organising the ‘ark’ at the Richmond Showgrounds that provided shelter for 960-odd evacuated animals.

“I’ve been in the industry for 31 years, but this was a really testing time,” she says.

Carolyn’s organisation may have been one of the first on the ground, but the veterinary response ended up involving several entities and agencies and scores of individuals, while local veterinary practices contributed expertise and facilities. Even as shelters were being erected at the showgrounds, veterinarians from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and Massey University’s Veterinary Emergency Response Team (VERT) were heading daily behind the cordon to check on the welfare of animals and to treat and euthanase the worst affected.

“We saw those guys heading out into the field, and we saw how exhausted they were when they came back,” says Carolyn. “They were the true heroes.”

As the responsible agency for animal welfare in an emergency, MPI’s role was to coordinate the efforts of the various organisations involved, supported by the likes of Federated Farmers, the SPCA’s National Rescue Unit (NRU) and the NZVA. It was no cakewalk. Wayne Ricketts, who led the ministry’s response on the ground, gives a sense of the scale of the emergency. “This was the biggest fire in the past 70 years, and we hadn’t seen such a large number of animals evacuate – nearly 1,000 in total. And there were many, many more who were left behind.”

Among those who went behind the cordon was Joe Bennett, a large animal veterinarian with Town & Country Vet in Richmond. His involvement began on Waitangi Day, after some firefighters reported seeing burned animals. Working with another local veterinarian, Joe examined a mob of 60-odd sheep that had been brought off a fire-ravaged hill to sheep yards.

“About 45 had significant burns – between 20% and 50% of their bodies. Some were slipping hooves, so there was a discharge from around their coronet bands. I euthanased 45 sheep. In a couple of marginal cases we gave them the benefit of the doubt, along with anti-inflammatories and antibiotics.”

That first day was “full-on”, but the following week was an exercise in patience. Joe spent hours waiting at cordons – “and fair enough, it was still a very active fire,” he acknowledges. Even so, one lesson he hopes is learned from Tasman is the importance of good communication at cordon lines. Veterinarians, he says, “need to have the ability to quickly get in and out, provided it’s deemed safe”.

When he did get behind the lines, Joe was able to assess dying and sick animals, including a small mob of sheep suffering from smoke inhalation. Mostly, though, his veterinary expertise was used to determine whether or not to euthanase. Two days after putting down those 45 sheep someone sent him an Australian article about veterinary parameters during bush fires. “Where we drew the line turned out to be pretty much bang on.”

VERT was also busy on the ground. According to Professor Chris Riley, who travelled to Nelson with two fellow VERT veterinarians, a veterinary technician and a fifth rescue-trained volunteer, the team’s primary role was to work with the NRU under the direction of MPI to address animal welfare needs.

“We did welfare checks on cattle, alpacas, sheep, goats, water fowl, chickens and a few domestic pets. Mostly we saw animals that didn’t have access to feed or to water; those were the kinds of thing that we tried to address. One night in Wakefield we evacuated more than 200 birds from a property that were at risk of smoke inhalation, ranging from African firefinches to parrots and chickens.”

Meanwhile at the showgrounds, Carolyn got to grips with establishing a shelter for multiple species of animals. Initially supported by a HUHA locum veterinarian and an administrator, she later called in a HUHA dog shelter manager and cat protection person for specialised help. The existing stables, sheds and sheep yards were all pressed into service, a run was built for free-range hens, fences were built and marquees erected.

Any animals showing signs of illness were isolated. “There are always going to be risks when you bring together animals of an unknown health status,” notes Wayne. “That’s where veterinarians are invaluable, keeping one step ahead in preventing disease outbreaks.”

The team went to extra lengths to make stressed owners feel comfortable about placing their animals at the ‘ark’, says Carolyn. “We [organised] play pens for the dogs with enrichment yards, for example. It was important that it was a quality facility, even if it was temporary.”

As it became apparent the emergency was going to last for some time, a bid was made to find more appropriate shelter for some animals. The cats, for instance, were struggling with the heat and site noise, and the ongoing stress.

At this point, veterinarian Meg Irvine, Clinical Lead Veterinarian at Stoke Veterinary Clinic, offered to house 30 cats at the clinic. “It was a reasonable amount of extra work, but our team was amazing,” says Meg. “A lot of them who weren’t working rang and said, ‘We know you’re going to need help cleaning cages and looking after the cats’, and they turned up first thing in the morning and were here last thing at night.”

That attitude was widespread in Nelson during the fires, she remarks, adding that plenty of other clinics helped out. “The way veterinarians from across the district pulled together was impressive and made me proud to be part of our profession.”

Veterinarian Paula Oram, from Town & Country Vet, volunteered at the showgrounds for several days. She medicated some animals for stress and others suffering respiratory conditions. “We rang the owners first. That was one thing I felt was extremely important, that the owners knew what was going on.”

Paula Short, secretary of the NZVA’s Companion Animal Veterinarians special interest branch, also lent a hand in Richmond and says that for most animals the main requirement was a secure environment. “However, there were some on medications, which added complexity. A lot of volunteer effort went into making sure all those things that would happen at home were kept going.”

Given the ferocity and scale of the fires, it’s remarkable how few animals perished or were injured. Meg reports seeing no burns cases, and thinks the same applied at other clinics. Likewise, casualties among animals evacuated to the showgrounds were extremely light. Yet that’s not to say the response was perfect.

Wayne says communication and coordination could have been better. “I don’t think that detracted from the outcome; people were genuinely happy they had the option of taking their animals to such a place. But it will be a learning that we need to have better communication in future events.”

Paula Oram agrees. “One lesson would be to have a governing body that was there from the get-go, a central point for people to go to, both the public and the helpers.”

“I think we’ll all be a bit wiser,” adds Carolyn Press-McKenzie, who ended up staying in Richmond for three weeks. “It was a bit of an accident that I was there. The lesson for the next one is to make sure that everyone is deployed early, even if it turns out to be a false alarm.”