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Effect of the Australian bushfires on our vets
  1. Julia Crawford

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Julia Crawford is president of the Australian Veterinary Association

There have always been bushfires during Australia’s summer season. However, this year we have seen unprecedented outbreaks, fuelled by three years of drought and other effects of climate change. The fires started in September and are still burning. It is now February and, as I write this column, a fire is approaching Canberra from the south. Every day the toll increases – a billion native animals killed, 14 million hectares burnt, 10s of 1000s of livestock killed, 3000 homes lost and 34 people killed. We feel grief, sadness and despair, but at the same time a sense of community and a desire to help and to heal.

The grief is intense. I have asked vets in fire zones if they are getting any wildlife brought in. The answer is not much because sadly the animals have already died. Maybe just 10 per cent of our native animals are surviving the fire-storms. Even incredibly fast birds like lorikeets have been caught by the flames. We also feel frustrated because the fire grounds are dangerous, inaccessible and cover such a vast area, and we can’t get in to rescue the animals. Ideally, we would have skilled teams – made up of vets, vet nurses, ecologists and arborists – enter the zones in a safe and timely manner. When we do eventually get to the animals that have survived, they need treatment, food and water and these are in short supply.

All of our practices in Australia do pro bono work with wildlife and some do an extraordinary amount. Under normal circumstances this is absorbed into the running of the practice, but in our affected communities this is now near on impossible without financial assistance. The Australian Veterinary Association’s (AVA) benevolent fund has been able to support this work with the assistance of donations from our international colleagues. If you are interested in making a donation you can do so via our website (www.ava.com.au). Your donations really are making a big difference.

Those of us relatively safe in our smoky cities feel deeply for the vets in affected areas. Some practices have had no power and next to no income, and some have had to evacuate altogether, but they are still out there trying to support and care for their community to the best of their ability, while also attempting to put their practices back together.

The AVA is helping them by providing not only financial aid but also information on bushfire treatments for all species, and pastoral care by way of calls and visits to ensure local veterinary practitioners are aware of any assistance that is available to them.

At this stage, those affected are in coping mode but exhaustion will kick in later. That is when they will need emotional support and volunteer vets to help them with time off

At this stage, those affected are in coping mode but exhaustion will kick in later. That is when they will need emotional support and volunteer vets to help them with time off. If you are interested in volunteering as a vet or vet nurse, you can find out how to apply for this at Vets Beyond Borders (www.vetsbeyondborders.org), or by emailing avert@vetsbeyondborders.org. Although the first vets that were called upon needed shooting and darting experience for severely burnt animals, we are now in need of vets to help us treat the rescued wildlife. There will also be ongoing opportunities to volunteer, so please do register your interest.

The AVA strongly believes that looking after the vets, vet nurses and veterinary practices in affected areas will bring about better long-term animal health and welfare. Once the immediate crisis is over, long-term rehabilitation and restoration will need the involvement of local vets who have an understanding of the ecology of their community, which will help to safely rebuild and preserve the environment of our precious and unique wildlife.

The climate changes that have brought about the drought and heat will be with us for years to come. We need an understanding of how to protect and support our wildlife in these conditions, as well as a greater number of funded specialist wildlife hospitals to treat them.

This is the first time we have called it fire season instead of summer and unfortunately I doubt it will be the last, but we have learnt a lot about what we need to do to tackle situations like this in the future.

The most wonderful learning is that in times of crisis, us veterinary professionals are great at pulling together to help and support each other.

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