Please note: Story contains graphic images of injured animals
HOW WITNESSING HORROR CHANGED MY PERSPECTIVE ON ANIMAL WELFARE
In January 2017, Chile experienced the worst wild fires in the countries known history. When I arrived in Santiago the city was engulfed in smoke, the enormous Andes mountain ranges that tower over the city were entirely hidden from site. After three weeks of intense fighting by the nations ‘bomberos’, the fires were finally brought under control. This was only after destroying 2300 square miles of land, causing $300 million USD damage and killing 11 local Chileans. However, rather than a stunned silence or melancholy permeating the population, what I witnessed was a nation motivated to help in any way possible. Stories of fire fighters being inundated with volunteers and shelters stacked high with donated food flooded the news. The underlying nationalism that is certainly present in Chile simmered to the surface in a 100% positive fashion, something I have never witnessed any country before.
When the blazes hit their peak, I was in Pichilemu, a surf town three hours south of Santiago. Even there, hundreds of kms from the fire front, the sun was hidden from view by the dense smoke and the air was tickling my asthmatic lungs. Yet even in this mellow, sedate surf spot, mini-vans were filling in the main square, ferrying eager volunteers to the front. I wanted desperately to be a part of the response, but I knew that without fluent Spanish, I would be more of a burden than help, even with my paramedic experience. I still wanted to help though, and thankfully, I was given the opportunity to do just that.
By absolute coincidence an animal welfare organisation that I wasn’t supposed to meet for three weeks rang me and said they would be responding to an emergency animal shelter near Santiago. This was my chance, so I jumped on the bike and headed off to meet them in Donihue.
For the next eight days I became part of a community of around 30 Chileans, building stables, retrieving injured horses from nearby farms and referring them on to veterinary hospitals after emergency care. It was an amazing insight into not only veterinary care, but also the Chileans spirit. Word quickly sped of the impromptu triage centre and every day, volunteers would turn up with trucks full of hay, dog food and medical supplies. By the end of the week there was a small tent city surrounding the stables that had all been built by hand from timber donated by the nearby timber yard. It was incredible.
Whilst witnessing this amazing community work together in harmony was incredible, there were some moments during the week that impacted me deeply. Because I was operating primarily as a photographer for the NGO, I was taken on a number of trips to nearby farms where injured horses were being retrieved. Some of the injuries these horses had were truly horrific. One horse had suffered a total amputation to his left hind leg after having been caught in a fence during the blaze. Another had burnt its entire face, all that was remaining was a crust where skin had been – the poor thing couldn’t even drink water.
During my time I witnessed two horse be euthanized. With a wealth of medical experience and having witnessed death on many occasions as a paramedic, I thought this wouldn’t impact me the way it did. Yet on the day that the three-legged horse died, I openly cried. This poor animal had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, entirely helpless and without owners to assist him. Whilst he was in obvious, excruciating pain, witnessing his death was heartbreaking. I was used to trying to save lives. I am used to CPR, defibrillation, adrenaline, and intubation. But here, I simply witnessed life pass. And whilst it was peaceful, it was incredibly sad to witness.
My time supporting animals during the wild fires was incredible, not only witness an amazing community work together to help complete strangers, but also to learn a little more about myself. I have never really had relationships with animals before now. I’ve never had pets aside from a couple fish... neither of which lasted more than six weeks. I was allergic to horses till I was 16 and I have never had great experiences with cats and dogs. When I was 18 I went to the Serengeti and whilst I appreciated how incredible it was, I was never left speechless in wonder. And yet with the horses I saw that week, I felt something special. This is something new for me, something I am pretty excited to learn more about.