Valparaiso is a World Heritage City of 250,000, lying just to the north of Chile’s capital Santiago. Chile is no stranger to natural disasters, with forest fires and earthquakes regular occurrences.Having originated in the heat of surrounding hills, the wildfire quickly spread and soon was on a direct collision course with Valparaiso suburbs. The wildfire obliterated thousands of homes and forced a huge evacuation.
Whilst many people were safely evacuated, other victims were not so lucky. Sadly, thousands of animals were caught up in the epicenter of the disaster. Many perished as they were caught in the blaze. Others were severely injured and burned. The fire had engulfed people’s homes, their animals and their livelihoods. Whilst some families managed to escape with their beloved animal’s lives, many were left behind or separated in the panic.
In Valparaiso, people have always lived alongside animals. There are large amounts of pet cats and dogs, as well as street animals cared for by the community. Many households keep a few chickens, goats, sheep, pigs and even horses and cows in their yards or just loose in the neighborhood. Many use their animals for their living, for example, one family that needed food for their cattle, used them to hire out as oxen to plough people’s small garden plots or as a transport business. Chile (like all other Latin American countries) does not have laws, protocols or any dedicated government entity to protect animals during or outside of disaster situations. This results in two disasters- the first one is natural, the second one is the disorganized aftermath, where well meaning people struggle to co-ordinate an effective response.
Our mission was to evaluate the situation for animals and to see whether there was sufficient help, or if more was needed. Working closely with disaster relief organizers, we saw the magnitude of the damage. It was hard to believe that there had been neighborhoods where now there was nothing but ash, twisted metal and piles of cracked concrete. Chileans being Chileans, they were already rebuilding; families helping families, and volunteers coming from all lengths of the country to assist. And despite the day to day problems and complaints about the street dogs of Chile, the people made sure that their animals were cared for as well with a heartening response. Many of the animals had been separated from their families, who were now in shelters themselves having lost everything.
We saw one older couple repeatedly wandering from one veterinary shelter to another, desperately hoping to reunited with their beloved dog. At one clinic, a family of 8 puppies and the mother were brought in. All of them died from severe burns and smoke inhalation. Many livestock animals were taken away to other family members’ land, others suffered burns or respiratory system damage. As the days wore on, owners struggled to find food for them. The damage from the fire was so severe and winter is coming, so grass is unlikely to grow back until next spring. Around 50-100 dogs had been found dead after the fire, and there were probably more whose remains will never be found with fire temperatures hot enough to melt metal in some parts. Many animals passed away later on having survived the initial fire. But there was hope too. Hundreds of volunteers flooded into help. There were triage centers and a field hospital staffed by volunteer veterinarians and other helpers. Many cats and dogs had been rescued and were receiving veterinary care for their burns and respiratory symptoms – soon to make full recoveries. Over the week, we saw many of these patients well on their way to recovery, and even hobbling around in their bandaged paws, trying to play with each other. Many animals had been reunited with their distraught owners.
The GAAP worked with relief organizers in Valparaiso, helping to coordinate current responses. Our aims were to first access the damage, and second to help put in place an initial protocol to help manage the response. What was really highlighted was that better responses for animals are needed. Chile is no stranger to disasters – fires and earthquakes can be quite common, but animals always lose out in relief efforts. The current responses from well intentioned people do help animals, but ad-hoc and lacking management protocols. Much more can be done. With an organized approach designed specifically for animals, we can help create better responses not just at Valparaiso, but all future disasters in Latin America.