Disaster - An Australian Perspective

Disaster: An Australian Perspective

Guest Post by Dian Fowles, PhD candidate

Extremes of weather are regular events in Australia, where (along with drought) both fire and flooding can wreak havoc on the landscape and the lives of people and animals. Some of these events, however, have been particularly devastating.


The ability to have animals remain with their families can lead to a greater chance of individual and community disaster resilience and aid in reduction of trauma and post-disaster mental health service demands” says Dian Fowles

In February 2009, for example, the state of Victoria suffered through the most fatal bush fire on record[1].  The fires followed an extended, intense heat wave which had affected all of south-eastern Australia. Hundreds of separate outbreaks occurred in Victoria and a change in wind direction caused some to increase in intensity and rapidly spread over towns that had previously been safe. Around 450 000 hectares (over 1 million acres) burnt including agricultural land, national parks and reserves (70), and a number of townships. One hundred and seventy three people from 78 communities died (120 from one small town alone), more than seven and a half thousand were displaced, and over 2 000 homes were burnt. It has been estimated that over a million wildlife and thousands of stock animals were affected – many of those not actually burnt in the fires still died from breathing the intensely hot air (peaking within the fires at over 1100°C). Many animals that were burnt were severely injured beyond the abilities of rescuers to save them and the most humane course of action was to have them euthanized in situ.

A large scale flooding event impacted a significant portion of the eastern part of the country during December 2010/January 2011, including rural agricultural properties, urban and semi-urban areas. Three quarters of the council areas in the state of Queensland were declared a disaster zone[2]. Over 200 000 people were affected, with around 12 000 needing to be accommodated in evacuation shelters. There were 24 recorded deaths in the state, 23 of these from the small communities in the Lockyer Valley, which was subjected to flash flooding. In this particular area, many animals had to be left behind during the evacuations of their humans – many were washed away, and either died or became lost. As in the Victorian fires, thousands of stock animals were affected along with unknown numbers of wildlife (including marine wildlife, impacted by the run-off waters loaded with silts and chemicals).

The zone of most of Australia’s major disaster events, to the greatest extent, coincides with the zone of the highest human and animal population densities. While there are large stock-holdings inland, on sheep and cattle stations, the coastal zone is home to the highest concentration of towns and cities, dairy farms and other animal husbandry. Given that around 68% of households in Australia own at least one pet, this zone is also home to the greatest numbers of companion animals.

When companion animals are refused from evacuation measures or denied access to evacuation shelters the trauma of the experience is heightened, for both the animal’s human family and for the animals themselves. The ability to have animals remain with their families can lead to a greater chance of individual and community disaster resilience and aid in reduction of trauma and post-disaster mental health service demands. For some people, their companion animal may be their only family or, indeed, all that remains of their pre-disaster life. The depth of the human/animal bond has, until quite recently, been significantly underestimated and the trauma and grief at the loss of, or separation from, an animal with which bonds have been formed have, likewise, been minimised.

Additionally, many people (surveys in several countries, including Australia, indicate around half of pet owners) would choose to remain behind with their animals rather than evacuate, or return to collect them before it has been officially sanctioned. This risks the lives of the owners themselves, rescue personnel, and the animals. Ideally, the devising of measures to accommodate animals – at least in evacuation shelters – would have benefits that would ultimately go beyond the personal to the community level.


“If a member of the public hadn’t been out checking their own animals and spotted his legs sticking from his mother’s pouch, he would’ve died,” said Blue Gum’s caregiver, Stella Reid. The 4 month old joey named Blue Gum was rescued by a passerby.” (source) Image credit Blue Gum Jason Edwards/Newspix/REX USA

Sadly, immediate access to disaster sites by owners or animal rescue personnel is not always possible and animals that have been injured may have to wait several days before they can be assessed and treated or euthanized if called for. For many animals, this must be a horrendous time of forced abandonment at the worst of possible times. Herein lies a paradox of disasters: subjecting animals to such suffering would, in non-disaster times, amount to animal cruelty – punishable under animal welfare law. In times of these crises, when animals are most vulnerable to their physical environment, they are also most vulnerable to the dictates of the human culture/society within which they are confined.

Another paradox exists regarding the roles that certain key players must adopt at these times: the personnel who devote themselves to rescuing and caring for other animals in usual circumstances can be, in times of disaster, placed in the position of then deciding which animals are able to be saved and which are to be euthanized. This act/decision is born out of the desire to end the animals’ suffering and is, essentially, an act of kindness. However, for those having to make this choice, it can also be a heavy emotional burden to carry.

Given current predictions for more extreme events to occur due to global climate change, it is not unreasonable to expect that the demands for evacuation assistance and evacuation shelters by people with companion animals will increase. Demands for (and burdens on) those personnel who assist in animal rescues, care, and/or euthanasia are also likely to increase. It should be considered an imperative that focus be placed on policies and services that will ease the burden and trauma experienced by all groups of people directly involved with animals in disasters, for their benefit and, ultimately, the benefit of the animals as well.



Australian Government, 2014, ‘About Australia’, Australian Stories: Natural Disasters in Australia, http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/natural-disasters

[1] On February 6th 1851 (Black Thursday), Victoria experienced a much larger event with 5 million hectares (over 12 million acres) of the state burnt but fewer human deaths (12) were recorded.

[2] For scale, various media compared the area to the size of France and Germany combined.


*  *  *  *

Flinders PhD candidate Dian Fowles is investigating the impact of natural disasters on human-animal relations. – read more at Flinders.edu  Take part in a study, being conducted at Flinders University in South Australia.  This study is an investigation into the impacts of natural disasters on human-animal relationships.
Have you been impacted by disaster? Take part in a survey at this link  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/animaldisaster


One comment on “Disaster: An Australian Perspective

  1. A great piece Dian. The importance of animals (be they companion animals, livestock / commercial animals, or wildlife) in individual, household and community resilience post-disaster has not been sufficiently documented or quantified to date – although things are getting better! If we’re truly committed to supporting disaster resilience then the animals must be considered as a fundamental part of preparedness, planning, and response.

Comments are closed.