Nepal earthquake: Nation turns to helping animals

Nepal earthquake: Nation turns to helping animals

While officials try to rescue and retrieve the victims of the quake, others need to be dealing with the nation's animals

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A young boy watches from a mound of rubble as a search and rescue team from the Royal Thai Armed Forces digs at the entrance to where a home used to stand in search for the owner's body in Sankhu.
A young boy watches from a mound of rubble as a search and rescue team from the Royal Thai Armed Forces digs at the entrance to where a home used to stand in search for the owner's body in Sankhu.
Photo: EPA

Three dogs with broken legs have been waiting days for surgery at the Vet For Your Pet clinic in Bhaktapur city just east of Kathmandu. But with his family camped out in his ground-floor storefront and his support staff off tending to their households after last week's earthquake, veterinarian Pranav Raj Joshi has had to hold off operating.

"I hope by Monday we can do the amputations," Joshi said Saturday. "The breaks are too severe, but they'll do fine on three legs once we can complete the surgery."

In the first few days after Nepal's quake, Joshi was occupied around the clock trying to help people nearby. He pulled bodies out of collapsed brick buildings and drove corpses to the morgue in his jeep. "I was out of my head," he said. "I didn't know who I was helping; I just kept moving, moving, moving."

But with the initial human-focused search, rescue and first aid efforts now moving past the emergency stage, Nepalese veterinarians such as Joshi, and domestic and international animal welfare organisations and pet and livestock owners, are counting the quake's effect on animals.

In any disaster, the death and injury of animals, and the loss of their owners or shelters, has emotional, financial and health consequences for people and communities. In particular, there is concern that the bodies of dead animals could spread disease.

Selling milk is all I know

Surendra Maharjan, 33, lost all his five of his cows when his neighbor’s building collapsed on his livestock shed in Shova Bhagawati. He used to make about US$35 a day selling milk to nearby shops. "This was my only business, and selling milk is all that I know," he said. "I don't know how I will raise my family with all my cattle gone."

In Paslang, a hilltop farming village 35 kilometres northwest of Kathmandu where most homes were damaged or destroyed, residents said the quake killed two buffalo and a goat when the tin roofs of their sheds collapsed. Other cattle were hurt by falling debris.


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"No vets have come to treat the sick animals," said Khil Bahadur Ranamagar, 28, whose leg was broken.

Farming families in Paslang rely on the animals as insurance during lean harvest years, and often sell their milk. Ranamagar said the toll could have been much worse but since the quake happened at midday, many animals were out in the fields.

Properly disposing of the dead animals is important to contain the spread of diseases including anthrax and plague. But it's not just collapsed rural barns that contain such poisons.

Goats on the roof

In Bhaktapur, for example, many families raised goats on the top floors of their now-ruined three- to five-storey brick homes in the warrens of the old city. On the outskirts of town, a multistorey hen house with 9,000 birds was flattened by the quake. In the centre of Kathmandu, debris piles are full of pigeons that were perched in the eaves of old temples when the quake struck; the birds could not fly out fast enough.

With the government overwhelmed just trying to attend to human needs for food and shelter, animal specialists worry about a looming public health crisis.

"Dead animal disposal has been a big dilemma," said Manoj Gautam, president of the Animal Welfare Network of Nepal (AWNN) and executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute Nepal. "From an animal welfare point of view, we can't prioritide the disposal of dead animals, but it does have an impact on health so we are looking for ways to support local officials on this front."

Many pets and livestock that did survive the earthquake are homeless. In some cases, their owners died; in other cases, their now-homeless owners have been unable to take their animals with them to tent camps or back to their relatives' homes outside of Kathmandu. In Bhakatpur, goats that were being raised for meat are roaming the city's ancient brick squares.

AWNN, an umbrella group, is working with outside organisations such as Humane Society International to bring in vets and food supplies and get the necessary vaccines and medicines for sick and injured animals.

Adam Parascandola, director of animal protection and crisis response with Humane Society International, said that in Kathmandu, the capital, the priority is pets that were left behind or that are with families who are having trouble keeping them.

"If people are homeless and can't care for their animals, we need to help them with food, veterinary care and vaccinations," he said. The aim is to care for pets for a few months and reunite as many as possible with their owners once their living situation stabilises.

Outside city areas, Parascandola said, the priority is livestock. Dirty water supplies and loss of barns, and the stress of the disaster, can put cows, goats and other farm animals at risk for respiratory sicknesses, hoof disease and other problems.

Rahul Sehgal, Asia director for Humane Society International, said a typical Nepalese farmer would have two large animals, such as cows, and perhaps 10 small ones, such as goats.

"Normally, these animals would be out grazing, but after the earthquake, with people dealing with many problems, a lot of these animals are being tied to something," Sehgal said. "That leads to stress and also sanitation problems, and then there’s the issue of getting food to these animals."

Parascandola said one of the big challenges in Nepal is how difficult it is to get to many places. "You can spend a day getting to just three or four villages, and there are thousands of villages - it's not like other places where we've recently had earthquakes, like Haiti," he said. "Even with the various groups here, it's very difficult."

But people need help

Groups like AWNN and Humane Society International are mindful that some people may not like the idea of helping animals while people still need assistance.

"While humans are suffering so much, some people may think it's not good to talk about animals," said Gautam, who lost a niece in the earthquake. "So we are trying to get aid supplies for humans and take those in parallel, so that people don't get angry."

Sehgal agreed. "We don't want to be in a situation where we arrive somewhere trying to help animals and there's a human dying," he said. "Every team that goes out to help animals will also help humans.

In the first few days of the disaster response, there has been some tension over priorities and tactics between local vets such as Joshi and international animal welfare groups that have parachuted into the country.

Joshi, for example, has been annoyed by the foreigners being unable to help with getting rid of the dead animals, and their suggestion that rescued dogs could be flown out to adoptive homes as far away as the United States.

"Shipping one dog to the US costs US$1,000," he said. "You can build a house for a Nepalese for that much money."

But Julie Hoag, an American veterinarian who has been practicing in Nepal for several years, is encouraging the locals and foreigners to find common ground. "The needs are too great not to," she said.

 

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