In pictures: the impacts of the floods on animals

By Melanie Dove 14 March 2022
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We document the impact of the recent floods on animals.

I was shattered, like so many people, watching the effects of the floods from afar. And, so, I decided to contribute as a volunteer with Victoria’s Vets For Compassion in some of the worst affected areas and document what was going on photographically. I was hoping to capture not only the tragedy that was occurring, but also the triumphs in the face of one of the most widespread natural disasters ever to hit Australia’s East Coast.

What I’ve particularly tried to capture is the impact of flood not only on people but also on the animals. My heart broke on seeing the footage filmed by a farmer watching his whole herd of Friesian cows swept away as he stood helpless. I had to turn off all media for a while after seeing that.

But undertaking this photographic project has since reinforced for me the important role pets play as beloved family members, and also how both pets and people are emotional supports for each other during the healing process after this horrifically traumatic event, which has left countless displaced, living in limbo awaiting to see if their homes are salvageable or forever condemned.

Many have lost every worldly possession including homes, uninsured because of exorbitant premiums. And yet I’ve come across so many people who’ve lost everything saying, “there are people worse off” and “at least my family and pets are safe”.

Many districts and townships have been hit hard, such as Casino, Coraki, Mullumbimby, Woodburn and Ballina, but the hardest hit has been Lismore. This north-east NSW town is no stranger to flooding with a large portion of its centre built on a floodplain. But as the Wilsons River and Leycester Creek overflowed, floodwaters exceeded all previous records with residents reporting the depths to be more than two meters higher that previously experienced, flooding second stories of homes on stilts built to the highest legal level.

“It was like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie,” local Sonja Nobbs said. “We were convinced we were going to die.”

She and her 23-year-old son, Emmett, waited four hours to be rescued because there were 1569 active calls waiting at the same time as theirs. The only reason their plea was escalated and they were subsequently saved is because the emergency services person taking their call could hear their neighbour screaming and gurgling, “I’m fu##ing drowning”, as he struggled to keep himself and his dog above water, grappling with roof guttering.

Sonja and Emmett sought refuge along with hundreds of others at a makeshift emergency evacuation centre set up at Southern Cross University (SCU). “People and pets are experiencing intense trauma and stress and are going to need support not just now, but well into the future, for at least the next 12 months,” she said.

All of Lismore’s three veterinary clinics were flooded and one doesn’t plan to re-open ever. When the crowds of displaced citizens and pets descended upon the SCU centre, local vet nurse Michelle Harris was compelled to help but didn’t expect to face what she encountered.

For three harrowing days, on her own and without facilities or medication Michelle treated more than 50 pets and supported their hysterical owners begging for help. Many were suffering shock and eight were critical. She tells of saving cats by keeping them under her top against her skin to warm them without any equipment or services.

“I turned up and started warming and treating for shock,” Michelle recalled. “That’s the minimum I could do with just my body heat and bare hands until help came.”

And that help manifested in a constant flow of volunteer vets and nurses from not only the local clinics but also further afield from places such as such Bangalow and Vets For Compassion from Victoria supplying a mobile veterinary triage van, free consultations, treatment and medications to all those flood affected.

Those helped thus far ranged from big animals such as the horses trapped on Woodburn Bridge for six days to rats and chickens and more commonly dogs and cats.

Many animals are now still suffering skin infections from the putrid floodwaters and contaminated mud, as well as gastro, stress, rain scald and pneumonia, foot rot and lameness due to the sodden ground. The small amount of wildlife brought into the temporary clinics have needed to be euthanised, while other viable rescues were taken to nearby dedicated wildlife facilities such as Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital.

Amy-Lee O’Brien and her family from South Ballina were unable to take their beloved pets onboard the helicopter that rescued them and so they had to leave them behind when they were choppered out of the rising flood waters.

Unable to return to free them for six days, they endured an agonising wait to see if they were safe.

Amy-Lee said her kids’ moods have lifted immensely since being reunited with their beloved animals.

“Our pets were the missing piece of the puzzle,” she said, “it’s different to losing all your stuff to having a family member missing.” They, like many others have been taken in at Almare Tourist Motel, one of the few places in Ballina that wasn’t flood damaged. It was quite a surreal sight with dogs out the front of most rooms and cats and birds secured in others.

Natalie Skillings-Smith, with her husband and teenage children, worked until exhaustion, roping their eight horses who has been swimming for hours with some of the taller horses finding momentary relief by standing on fence posts and roof tops. In the raging flood waters of Richmond River the family used a boat to encourage the horses onto nearby Woodburn Bridge. There they were marooned for 6 days with cars, people, cattle and dogs.

Then there are the stories of pets saving their owners, like Baeg Seo who credits his cats with alerting him to the rising flood waters. “My cats woke me up,” he said. “I ended up slipping off the roof into the water and all I could hold onto was a metal hook on the side of the house with one hand and I held the three cats up on the roof for 45 minutes before I was rescued by boat.”

Really, they saved each other. And, as every day passes, pets and people continue to provide love, support and strength to each other in a show of resilience as they begin to recover and rebuild.