Mourning the loss of (other) animals in the Australian fires

One of us (HF) lives in regional Queensland Australia and has already been evacuated this summer, receiving the ominous text first saying to leave immediately followed shortly by a message saying it was too late to leave; a message received after we realised that our local evacuation centre doesn’t accept (other) animals. The other (NT) has been watching the climate crisis unfold in Australia, along with so many across the world deeply upset by the toll this is taking on humans, the land, plants and all the other animals affected by the fires. The media keeps up the headlines of the 450, 480, now potentially over a billion free-living animals thought to have perished in the fires. It’s likely that number will grow as the fires are far from out, and that it may be an underestimate in the first place. At the same time, we are inundated with stories about humans who are going to extraordinary lengths to save individual animals, and the volunteers who are working in a more organised capacity to help affected animals. Thank goodness for them and the work they are doing.

The more iconic free roaming animals (wildlife) such as kangaroos and koalas have received much attention in the media leading to subsequent donations to rescue organisations (such as WIRES Wildlife Rescue and the Australia Koala Foundation) well exceeding original expectations. This has been helped by the influence of Australian sports personalities and other celebrities (although see this thread for a much needed critical view on this).

Far less attention has been given, at least in the mainstream media, to the many other animals burned during the fires, particularly those farmed within animal agriculture (see one story here, and another here, but note they include some very distressing images). These are animals designated as ‘stock’ and so the main coverage seems to be in farming-oriented media (example here) although the mainstream press is starting to slowly pick up on their plight. Even though these articles may depict the horror and heartbreak of having to ‘put animals out of their misery’ during or after the containment of fires, mostly readers’ empathy is directed towards the farmers and the trauma of shooting cattle rather than on the horrific conditions the animals have faced prior to, during and after the fires. Few words are spent describing the slow starvation and dehydration so many cows, sheep and other farmed animals have experienced prior to the outbreak of the fires (see here for example). Almost entirely absent is any focus on how they are mostly left to die without a national evacuation plan for animals that are effectively trapped in their yards or sheds. For those farmed animals who somehow manage to survive blazes on a scale and with such ferocity that are hard to imagine, veterinary care—if provided—tends to be lean and mostly predicated on determining whether to save or euthanise individual animals. And this is usually framed in terms of economic decisions and/or the potential harm to human health. The scale of the injury and deaths of farmed animals is now so extensive that the Australian Defence Force have been called in to bury hundreds of thousands of farmed animals not to dignify them but to prevent a biosecurity hazard to humans.

This is not to say that animal farmers do not care about or for the animals in the herds, nor that they  make purely economic decisions about their charges. Some farmers have made huge efforts to protect their animals as with one farmer who moved 1000 cows to stand under sprinklers. It is to say, though, that the more pressing questions are rarely asked, specifically those relating to the ongoing viability of animal farming across Australia, given the extent of climate change and worsening ‘normalness’ of drought.

Completely missing from any of the coverage on how nonhuman animals are affected by the fires—whether they be free-living animals or those kept captive on farms—is a discussion of the links between animal agriculture and climate change. This is despite climate change being mentioned in a large number of mainstream articles about the fires (example here). In some ways this is hardly surprising as mainstream media is usually very shy about considering these links. This reflects the general (although arguably changing) normalisation of consumption of animal bodies and secretions, or “Meat Culture”.

And while the toll on free-living animals, on country, and on human livelihoods is certainly devastating and not to be understated, without a consideration of the role of animal agriculture in climate change we aren’t likely to see the systemic levels of change necessary to address this climate emergency.

Considering the impact on ‘stock’ animals and aggregating our concern for free-living animals, gives us a (perhaps much needed) distance: they cease to be individuals who have had their lives, health, habitat and friends and family taken from them. While we continue focussing on the human toll, they become a mass of ‘livestock’ affected by fires, buried by the army in mass graves.  These are the same strategies that facilitate the continuation of a meat and dairy industry that involves the mass incarceration and killing of other animals while allowing most consumers of animal products to claim they care about other creatures.

If not in the midst of crisis then soon afterwards, we need to have some difficult conversations about our relationship with the world and other species in it. This includes acknowledging the links between animal agriculture and climate change and finding ways to help those in that sector transition to something more sustainable as these people have done. In turn, this involves recognising these animals as sentient individuals with their own vested interests rather than dismissing them as ‘livestock.’

Such discussions will be met with huge amounts of resistance from both individuals and institutions. In no small part this is due to the close ties between animal agriculture, the economy and capitalism. As we move forward though, it is worth bearing in mind that the same links are apparent between climate crisis and fossil fuels, especially the coal industry. We ignored them at our peril and at the peril of a billion other animals affected by the bushfires. We must learn from that.

Below are some of the compilations of places needing donations 

  • A Twitter thread here is listing smaller organisations that are not receiving as much attention.
  • Animals Australia’s website is facilitating donations. Their facebook page also has some posts listing groups to consider donating to.
  • Voiceless have a list of bushfire affected carers and sanctuaries you can donate to. You can visit their website here, or download the PDF list here.

Authors: Nik Taylor and Heather Fraser. Artwork: Heather Fraser

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