Bushfire Companion Animal Management
Ownership of companion animals or livestock is a known risk factor for mortality during disaster emergencies. The bonds that form between people and animals can strongly influence decision making in times of crisis. The Royal Commission into the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 where 173 people lost their lives found that owners frequently delayed or failed to heed evacuation orders or returned prematurely to the fire grounds to rescue animals putting both themselves and emergency service providers at risk. Further, the loss of companion animals or livestock inhibited the ability of owners to recover post disaster reducing overall community resilience.
Australia is prone to natural disasters including floods, storms, bushfires and tropical cyclones. The Climate Commission and the Australian National Strategy for Disaster Resilience recognises that climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters. In order to build resilience and enhance disaster recovery processes, animals must be integrated into household and state and territory disaster planning.
Most state and territory emergency relief and recovery plans emphasise the concept of self sufficiency during the prepare, response and recovery stages of a natural disaster emergency. The extent to which animals are integrated into these arrangements varies, with only Victoria [post Black Saturday] having an Emergency Animal Welfare Plan.
Animal welfare legislation has limited application during natural disasters except, that in all instances, the owner of an animal has primary responsibility, or duty of care, to ensure they are protected from unreasonable pain or suffering. Household safety disaster plans, eg bushfire action plans, must therefore also include contingencies for the households’ animals.
These plans need to consider the fact that, during a disaster, local authorities will always prioritise human life over animals and that self-sufficiency of local residents before, during and after a natural disaster is expected. Traffic management of designated evacuated areas result in one way, “out bound only” road closures meaning, once an evacuation order has been given, “evacuees” cannot do multiple return trips to gather personal property, including pets or livestock. Owners of large numbers of companion animals or livestock requiring multiple trips to evacuate a property should plan to leave well before compulsory evacuation orders are given. Local authorities are also not mandated [except in Victoria] to provide food, water or shelter for evacuated animals once they are outside.
It is imperative that owners of companion animals, horses and livestock decide well in advance of any disaster, whether their animals will be relocated or left on a property. Specifically, if they plan to evacuate animals how they will transport them and where they will stay or, if left on the property, the safest place to keep them to give them the best chance of survival. Owners should plan and prepare to provide for all of their animals’ needs, including shelter, food and water, for a minimum of 3 days if evacuated and 3-10 days if left on an evacuated property. In the face of an imminent natural disaster owners should implement their action plan early, that is, ideally in the watch and act phase of a bushfire alert not during the compulsory evacuation phase.
Microchipping of dogs, cats and horses and ensuring that details on registered databases are up to date can greatly assist in identification and tracking of stray or relocated companion animals. The National Livestock Identification System that helps identify and track beef and dairy cows, sheep and goats can be used in an emergency to identify relocated or stray commercial livestock.
Owners of companion animals who live in a natural disaster prone area should prearrange a nearby family friend or relative who live in a safe cleared residence and who have suitable space or enclosed yards and are willing to house both humans and pets for a period of time. Owners should also prepare an emergency kit which includes dry food and water, bowls, second collar and lead, cat carrier, bedding and a woollen blanket. favourite toy and any medications.
Those whose plan is to leave early should first confine their pets to a safe internal space but to not tie them up. Once all other important “property” is loaded in vehicles, owners should attach leads/harness/collars to dogs and place cats and other companion animals in pet carriers and evacuate early to the prearranged friend’s or relative’s residence outside of the bushfire zone. If compulsorily evacuated during an emergency, plan to leave with all important property, including pets, in the one trip as, once evacuated, you will not be allowed back in.
If an owner’s plan is to leave without their pets or to “stay and defend”, then pets should be confined to a safe easily cleaned internal space, such as a laundry or bathroom, and supplied with enough non-perishable food [eg dry food] and water [fill bath, leave toilet seat up] for 3 to 10 days. Place a note on main entry door or gate alerting any emergency service providers that a pet is confined inside the property. If owners need to go to work on a high risk day, they should consider dropping off their pet[s] to a safe place outside of the fire risk zone or confine them to a safe internal space as above and/or notify neighbours and provide a key in case evacuation is required.
Horse and Livestock
Evacuating with horses requires forethought [including floats, multiple cars and/or people] and should be done well before a bushfire threatens a property. Horse owners are advised to develop a “group strategy” with friends, other agistees or horse club members on how, when and where an evacuation protocol could safely occur.
Horses are quite good at avoiding bushfires if given enough room to move freely in large open spaces that are free of large amounts of flammable vegetation. Owners of horses should choose a large well grazed paddock or a series of interconnecting smaller paddocks ideally with access to a dam. Do not leave gates open to roads where they may become a traffic hazard.
On high risk days remove all rugs and gear from your horse[s] and move them to your designated safe paddock. Do not confine them to a holding yard, stable or similar enclosed environment as horses are prone to panic and may injure themselves in attempting to escape. Horses that are unbranded and not microchipped can have phone numbers and surnames written on flanks or hoof walls with thick permanent marker. Horses that are hard to catch can have a leather halter and identity tags attached.
The NSW Department of Primary Industries encourages communities at risk of natural disaster to proactively prepare for the safety of its people, animals and infrastructure. Resilient communities don’t just survive natural disasters but recover quickly and perhaps more importantly have learnt from theirs’ and others’ previous experience with disasters.
Whilst the protection and preservation of human life is paramount, local authorities and state and territory lawmakers must recognise that the bonds people have with their animals will impact their decision making and behaviour during an emergency. Integrating animals into emergency planning at all levels will not only improve animal welfare outcomes but will also have a positive impact on human safety and resilience.