Concerns around large-animal rescue identified in Australian study

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A firefighter tends to the mare as she is removed from the bog. Photo: Royal Berkshire Fire & Rescue/Twitter
A British firefighter tends to a mare as she is removed from a bog. Photo: Royal Berkshire Fire & Rescue/Twitter

Many emergency personnel surveyed in a study harbour significant concerns around large-animal rescue in Australia.

Their concerns centred around the coordination of emergency care for animals, physical management of large animals, inter-agency coordination, and issues in dealing with animal owners.

Very few of those surveyed had received any formal training in large-animal rescue, the researchers found.

The findings from data collected from 156 first responders have been published in the journal, PLOS Current Disasters.

The researchers, Bradley Smith, Kirrilly Thompson and Melanie Taylor, said the management of large animals during disasters and emergencies created difficult operational environments for responders.

Their study set out to identify the challenges faced by Australian emergency response personnel in their dealings with large animals and their owners, and to determine the readiness for large-animal rescue in the country.

Those surveyed for their views were Australian emergency services personnel, emergency managers such as federal agricultural departments, and local government.

The researchers found that around one-third of the responders had direct experience with large-animal rescue, but most only rated their ability level to deal with large animals as “moderate”.

Only a handful rated their ability level as “extremely capable”.

Smith and his colleagues said the prevalence of large-animal rescues was difficult to gauge, because large and small animals were often not distinguished in incident reports.

Respondents stressed the lack of specialised training in how to deal with large-animal rescues.

“Very few had received any formal training at all, with an overwhelming majority indicating they would attend formal training if it were made available,” the researchers said. “This included personnel that had previously attended training.”

Those surveyed also identified several strategies that may help improve large-animal rescue in the country, including more resources (special equipment, trucks, cranes); greater cooperation between agencies; education of the public; and allowing animals into evacuation centres.

“Animal owners were depicted by emergency responders as being either a help or a hindrance, particularly when they were not well prepared or didn’t adhere to advice,” the authors said.

“This study suggests that emergency personnel would benefit from training and support in how to manage animal owners, particularly when the owners are experiencing a wide range of emotions such as distress, fear and anger.

“Horse owners were singled out as particularly challenging due to their highly emotional animal bond, but also because horses can be difficult to evacuate and can cause serious risk if released.”

The research team said the study did not involve a statistically representative survey. Rather, it was intended to be exploratory in nature.

Of the 156 emergency responders who participated, most – 74.4 percent – were from emergency services agencies. Over half of the respondents – 66.7 percent – were volunteers.

In all, just 10.4 percent reported having received any formal training.

“Large-animal rescue is clearly a ‘big deal’ to animal owners [and] emergency response personnel,” the researchers concluded.

“The management of large animals during disasters creates difficult operational environments that present several challenges to emergency responders.”

To be successful, it required emergency responder personnel with specialist training, access to resources, local knowledge, and coordination among various emergency service providers, they said.

“This study would seem to suggest that the way forward is not to ask emergency responders to change their current model or compromise their mandate to privilege human life, but rather to coordinate more effectively with organisations and services that are already established and experienced in dealing with large animals in natural disasters, and also to build working relationships with owners.

“Unfortunately, the cost of not taking action in terms of coordinated large-animal rescue, is poor outcomes for animal welfare, the community, and emergency responders themselves.”

Smith and Thompson are from the Appleton Institute, which is part of Central Queensland University; Taylor is with the Center for Health Research at the University of Western Sydney.

Smith B, Thompson K, Taylor M. What’s the Big Deal? Responder Experiences of Large Animal Rescue in Australia. PLOS Currents Disasters. 2015 Jan 22. Edition 1. doi: 10.1371/currents.dis.71d34082943fa239dbfbf9597232c8a5.
The full study can be read here

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