kangaroo standing amongst burnt trees

Stories of courage: caring for animals during bushfires

7 August 2023
In the face of worsening climate disasters, a Sydney Environment Institute project seeks to understand the work being done by communities to protect animals during catastrophic fires, and how this can be better supported.

By the Shoalhaven project team

The 2019-20 Black Summer Bushfires brought devastating impacts on wild, companion and farmed animals, but animals were, for the most part, left out of official disaster management responses. Our Sydney Environment Institute research project, run in partnership with the Shoalhaven City Council, seeks to understand how communities in the Shoalhaven spontaneously mobilised to protect and care for animals during the Black Summer.

For several months over 2022 and 2023, our team of researchers spread out across the Shoalhaven and conducted more than 70 interviews with community members and other stakeholders. We have been building a detailed picture of what actually happened in the Black Summer, the key issues people faced while protecting animals, and what communities are saying they need to effectively care for animals during future disasters. The picture painted by the interviews was stark.

As a way of reflecting back the wealth of information community members generously shared with us, the research team wrote and recorded a series of vignettes incorporating key themes and findings of the project. Each story is a fictionalised representation of real events, and is an amalgamation of community members’ experiences. The characters are made up, but their experiences are based on those of our interview participants.

The written versions of these stories are linked below:

Wild animals (pdf, 145KB)

Domesticated animals (pdf, 97KB)

Farmed animals (pdf, 146KB)

The audio versions are below via Acast, and can also be accessed on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

Stories of courage

The material held in these vignettes is too detailed and complex to summarise here, but we can point to some of what stood out to us. It was clear that many people had acted with extraordinary courage, often at huge physical, mental and emotional costs. They developed networks in a time of crisis that enabled them to care for humans and animals, and save significant numbers of animals across all categories.

People protected and cared for animals while enduring extreme heat and smoke. People also felt cared for by the animals they lived with, both during and after the fires. As the fires got closer, amid anxiety, panic and uncertainty around what was going to happen or where would be safest, they had to make tough decisions. The thought that a poorly executed evacuation might harm the animals was just as stressful as the thought that the fires might come their way. Nevertheless, people collaborated to make the wisest decisions they could.

When animals died, some community members didn’t have time to process the deaths amid the duties and pressures brought on by the fires. Others felt the pain of these losses straight away. Many still carry the trauma.

The fires took months to move across the country and the state of constant vigilance wore people down. For many, the strain and exhaustion this caused was worse than anything they had previously endured. At the same time, many felt their communities coming together in ways they had never experienced before.

In May and June this year, we held four workshops in North and South Shoalhaven, bringing together existing and new community participants to discuss the project findings thus far and to begin planning for future climate disasters. We shared the vignettes with participants before the workshops.

With the first round of workshops now finished, the research team is embarking on key next steps identified as necessary by the participants, including preparing for a second round of training workshops for community members.

In the next eight months, we will develop a project report, which we will then share on the SEI website. If you have any questions regarding this research project or would like to get in touch with the team, please contact project lead Anna Sturman.

Header image: Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur on Unsplash

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