On 17 October 2013, the car park at Winmalee Village Centre was teeming with people who had been evacuated from their homes due to bushfires that were rapidly spreading across the Blue Mountains area in New South Wales. The sky was orange and thick with smoke as locals waited anxiously to hear if their properties had escaped the fire’s destructive path. In the midst of this chaos and despite a lack of power, Dr Chris Blair and his team of vets and nurses at PetFriends were working hard to treat scores of lost and injured animals. As the only place open in the village centre, PetFriends became a refuge for distressed people and animals. When Blair founded PetFriends Vet Hospitals in 1973, he was one of four vets in the greater Blue Mountains district. Today, PetFriends employs six vets and eight nurses at two practices in Winmalee and Faulconbridge. Both facilities are comprehensively fitted out with the latest medical equipment, including anaesthetic, dental and X-ray machines. Dr Blair has been treating animals affected by natural disasters free of charge since 1978.
Just like humans, bushfires affect animals in physical and emotional ways. At the first sign of trouble, they often become spooked and distressed. “Dogs start to whine and the native birds fly away from the bush,” explains Dr Blair. “Friends living in the Hills district said there was a huge influx of birds on the first day of the fires.” When the fires started, the PetFriends team was inundated with pets suffering from smoke inhalation and singed paws. The smoke inhalation injuries were potentially life threatening as the toxic atmosphere was damaging the lungs of cats and dogs. The team provided injured pets with oxygen, intravenous treatments and pain relief products such as injections and skin patches. For burn victims, vets removed dead and infected skin, cleaned the wound and dressed it with a cream called Silvazine that is also used on human patients. There is no artificial skin for animals so wounds can take a long time to heal.
One lucky cat who received this treatment was Olly, whose owners found him lying in a pool of mud when they returned to their destroyed house. He was dehydrated, in shock and suffering wounds that had become badly infected. After nine weeks and 21 operations for his burnt paws, Olly returned home in time for Christmas. “I’m proud to say we saved all the cats and dogs that came to us,” says Dr Blair. Native animals were not as lucky. Firestorms move very quickly and only animals that can burrow have a chance of surviving. PetFriends worked with WIRES [Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service] to help native wildlife. “We didn’t treat many native animals—just a few singed possums and birds—because unfortunately most died in the firestorm,” says Dr Blair. “WIRES did an outstanding job—the volunteers are amazing people who are dedicated to their work.” PetFriends also operated a lost-and-found service.
Dr Blair and his team would photograph the injured animals that came into the practice and a volunteer would post the images on the PetFriends Facebook page. Dozens of pets were reunited with their owners as a result. At the end of a full day treating injured animals, Dr Blair would hop in his car and deliver pet food to families affected by the bushfires. The donations were courtesy of Michelle Alber at Sydney Pet Rescue and Adoption, who organised the delivery of the much-needed supplies. Companies such as Bayer, Hills Pet Food and Science Diets, Novartis, Provet, Uncle Ben’s and Whiskas provided the food and medicines for free. “The amount of goodwill we experienced from the community was extraordinary,” says Dr Blair. “We had people coming from all over the Blue Mountains area because they had heard about our kindness. Many people called up wanting to make donations. A number of vets called us and said, ‘Mate, I know what you’re going through, take $200 off my credit card’.” The long days and nights ultimately took their toll on the PetFriends team, particularly Dr Blair, who was also handling the out-of-hours calls. “Being a vet is a very emotional job, but particularly in these circumstances,” he says. “All the vets and nurses were utterly exhausted, physically and emotionally.
Every encounter is emotionally draining because you have to cope with all the drama that comes with the job. Telling people bad news about their pet—it’s no fun at all.” Dr Blair says vets often don’t just take care of animals but have to look out for their owners as well. He says one woman found the charred skeletons of her six cats under her bed when she returned home. His wife Roz helped organise a memorial container for the cats’ ashes, which provided her with much needed closure. “I never thought [compassion burnout] would affect me, but I realised it doesn’t matter how strong you think you are, there comes a point when your body and mind have had enough and you become overloaded,” admits Dr Blair.
Dr Blair is presenting a paper based on his experiences at the AVAPM conference in July 2014. He advises vets to prepare a risk analysis on the likelihood of a natural disaster occurring and its consequences. “Create a checklist of things to do, and make number one on that list ‘delegate tasks’,” he says. “There’s a tendency to fix a problem yourself because everyone around you is busy, but you must take care of yourself and be willing to ask for help to avoid burnout.” Dr Blair singles out Michelle Alber for her assistance. “She was absolutely wonderful in helping me cope with the disaster because I hadn’t prepared for it at all,” he says. “I can’t tell you how important it was to have someone supporting me because I was so isolated and I didn’t know quite what to do.”
PetFriends’ decision to provide its services for free cost the practice more than $100,000, excluding the extra payments it made to staff for overtime. “We were so focused on saving the animals that we didn’t think about what it was costing us,” says Dr Blair. “We are now developing a policy on what we will do next time, including charging a minimum fee to offset some of our costs.” Despite the difficulties, Dr Blair loves his job. “The most rewarding aspect is knowing you’re making a difference,” he says. “We have a wall covered in thankyou cards and a never-ending supply of chocolates. People hug you spontaneously for helping their pets. The personal relationships you build with people and their pets make up for all the hardships.”