Helping wild animals in Australia

5 Feb 2020
Animals harmed by fires in Australia

As many people are already aware, fires have been raging in many parts of Australia for several months now. This has been the worst wildfire season in recent memory in Australia. The fires have been devastating the lives of billions of animals. The fires move quickly, so even relatively fast-moving animals can’t always escape them. The intense heat and smoke generated by the fires are often too much for animals who try to seek refuge, for example in a burrow. Animals can get trapped underground and die when their burrows heat up like ovens.

Some animals are directly harmed by fire by being burned, from excessive heat, or from inhaling smoke. In these cases, the animals can be rescued by firefighters. In other cases, animals may be indirectly harmed by the fires. For example, they may lose parents; lose access to food and water; lose access to shelter; and they may become very vulnerable to predators because they are forced out into the open. It is also been observed that predators will move to areas to hunt the weakened survivors after the fire has passed through. A lack of water has been a particularly big problem for the animals after the fire because of the heat and because this season has been so dry. In all these cases, the animals will suffer and perhaps die without our help.

We should also not underestimate the lingering psychological effect that exposure to these fires may have on animals. Some people have the misconception that animals living in the wild only live in the moment and will not be negatively affected by past traumatic events; however, this is not the case. Various animals living in the wild have been found to show PTSD-like symptoms after traumatic events for more than a week after the event. These symptoms include hypervigilance and continuously elevated stress levels.

Being exposed to a wildfire seems like it would be extremely terrifying, and it is very plausible that this event could cause these symptoms and the grave suffering associated with them. This is in addition to the suffering caused by the lasting physical harms from the fires, such as burns. This means that animals living the wild are not only affected by current stimuli in their environment, but by various traumatic and damaging events in their past. This is very important to consider, since this is probably a significant cause of suffering for animals everywhere.

However, many animals are already being helped, both by individuals concerned about their situation and by institutions. In addition, many people are paying attention to this massive tragedy and attempting to help animals through donations or direct action. We should celebrate these cases because they provide vital aid to individual animals and because they can help to reinforce an attitude of helping animals whenever possible.

 

Examples of animals being helped

Koalas are some of the animals that have been devastated by the fires. They are particularly vulnerable to fires because they are slow-moving, have poor immune systems, and spend time in trees that are especially flammable. There are many cases in which koalas have been rescued from the fires or treated for burn injuries which would have otherwise killed them. This is great, although more could be done, and other kinds of animals could be treated similarly.

Other animals have been helped by giving water to them. In this video, an animal rescue team working on Kangaroo Island searches for survivors after a fire has passed through the area. They rescue a possum and many other animals. They provide food and water to animals who will likely be unable to find them.

In another case, some baby kangaroos were rescued after being injured in the fires. A man volunteered to provide medical care to them and to nurse them back to health.

Humans are likely to be at least somewhat responsible for the fires because of climate change contributing to them. This summer, Australia has been particularly hot and dry, and climate change is thought to be a significant factor in why the fires are so intense this year. These fires can be thought of as a combination of human caused and naturally caused harm. However, just as with human suffering, we should try to prevent animal suffering even when we are not responsible for it.

 

Harming, instead of helping animals

Unfortunately, humans not only often fail to act in ways that help animals, but rather increase the harms they suffer. In contrast with current efforts to help wild animals, the Australian government is planning to kill thousands of dromedaries in the wake of the fires by shooting them from helicopters. This is being done because they consider these dromedaries to be an “invasive species” and because they believe they are drinking too much water.

This is a prime example of the kind of attitude that many people have towards animals. Our response to the suffering that animals have to undergo for natural reasons or for a combination of natural reasons and human action should be in favor of helping the animals involved. There is already a lot of suffering happening in the wild without contributing to more. We should not be killing animals because they belong to “the wrong species.” To cultivate a non-speciesist attitude towards all animals, we should celebrate cases of people helping animals while pointing out cases where people unfairly harm or ignore the interests of animals.

Animal Ethics has written other articles about the many ways in which fires can harm animals, how different animals react when fires occur, and how we can best help them in these cases. We are also funding more research on this topic. This will provide information needed to design adequate protocols for providing aid to wild animals in cases of fires.


Further readings

BBC (2020) “Australia to cull thousands of camels”, BBC News Services, 8 January [accessed on 26 January 2020].

Lewis, D. (2020) “‘Deathly silent’: Ecologist describes Australian wildfires’ devastating aftermath”, Nature, January 10 [accessed on 26 January 2020].

Lyon, L. J.; Crawford, H. S.; Czuhai, E.; Fredriksen, R. L.; Harlow, R. F.; Metz, L. J. & Pearson, H. A. (eds.) (1978) Effects of fire on fauna: A state-of-knowledge review, Washington, D. C.: U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Phys.org (2020) “Wildlife ravaged by Australia fires could take decades to recover”, Phys.org, January 3 [accessed on 26 January 2020].

Resnick, B.; Irfan, U. & Samuel, S (2020) “8 things everyone should know about Australia’s wildfire disaster”, Vox, Jan 22 [accessed on 26 January 2020].

Samuel, S. (2020) “A staggering 1 billion animals are now estimated dead in Australia’s fires”, Vox, Jan 7 [accessed on 26 January 2020].

Science Daily (2019) “Fear of predators causes PTSD-like changes in the brains of wild animals”, Science Daily, August 7 [accessed on 28 January 2020].

Serna, J. & Rest, S (2020) “An Australia in flames tries to cope with an ‘animal apocalypse.’ Could California be next?”, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 14 [accessed on 26 January 2020].

Thompson, A. (2020) “Australia’s bushfires have likely devastated wildlife—and the impact will only get worse”, Scientific American, January 8 [accessed on 26 January 2020].

University of Sydney (2020) “More than one billion animals killed in Australian bushfires”, sydney.edu.au, 8 January [accessed on 4 February 2020].

Zhou, N. (2019) “Heartbreaking and heartwarming: Animals rescued from Australia’s bushfires devastation”, The Guardian, 24 Dec [accessed on 26 January 2020].