LIISA Jones has stories to tell … Stories of Edgecumbe flood waters and the rescue of hundreds of creatures that fought to survive the deluge.
As Whakatane SPCA’s senior animal welfare inspector, Liisa was at the helm of the massive rescue mission launched by the organisation at the peak of the flood. It was an effort that would span nearly six days, with the gritty dedication of SPCA staff and volunteers resulting in the Gateway Drive centre being overrun with rescued animals.
Two weeks after the flood, the centre remains busy. Animals still arrive from Edgecumbe, caught in the quietness of the previous night, and operations at the centre remain stretched. But staff point out that they’re on the home run. The animals come in a trickle, as the last hard-to-find stragglers are finally located.
The lengthy process of connecting animal with owner is nearly complete. Of the more than 800 animals that have passed through SPCA hands since the April 5 flood (including cats, dogs, stock, rabbits, birds, and tropical fish) all but a few have been either claimed, or connected, on paper, with their owners. Liisa says with many people currently unable to house their own pets, they are being cared for by friends or family, have taken up temporary residence at local menageries, or are in foster homes.
Liisa says a rescue mission was already being put into place when the river breached in Edgecumbe. “We knew a flood was likely and we were preparing for it,” she says, although no-one predicted the scale of things to come. Waiting for the go-ahead to enter flooded areas, Liisa says all Eastern Bay SPCA staff and volunteers were mobilised, the NZSPCA Rescue Unit was dispatched from Wellington and the Massey
University veterinary emergency team from Palmerston North. “Once the fire service contacted us to say come out and get these animals, we were totally ready to go.”
Driving in, she says water was flowing in through the windows of their truck. Vehicle access could only take them so far but the first animals in trouble were quickly spotted. “Two dogs,” says Liisa. “They were up to their necks in water and backed up on something against a fence.”
To reach the dogs required a boat. “The water we went through to get to them would have been well over my head,” she says. It was a promise of what was to come. The team then spotted a cow with its seven-month-old calf. “The calf had its front legs up on the mothers back trying to keep its head above the water.”
With water too deep to wade through, Liisa swam. “We knew the area was fenced, but the water was well above the fences and you couldn’t see them. We needed to establish where those fences were and try to open up a way out for them to swim out.” It was a lengthy operation, she says, but the welcome assistance of a farmer eventually brought success.
“It’s very hard to explain what it was like in those flood waters. It was dangerous, and when it started getting dark at nights, more so.”
Recalling boating into a house in Matipo Place where a breeder of cats had been forced to leave seven cats in a fenced outdoor area, Liisa recalls wading through chest deep water, petrol floating on the surface and debris everywhere. “The insects would jump up on you all the time, trying to get out of the water. And there were a fair few skinks and things around too.”
The cats had thankfully survived by climbing onto high shelving areas in their enclosure. Running out of cages, another cat found on the roof of a house was rescued into a pillow case. Liisa says the survival of many of the animals was amazing.
“We got to three dogs who had been together in a strong wire mesh kennel area. The force of the water had caused the kennel to concertina up into an area about a foot wide. All the dogs survived due to the way it had come up against something. The dogs must have been able to keep their heads above the water by clinging on to the higher parts.”
Sadly though, not every animal made it out alive. “We had some cats that didn’t make it,” says Liisa, and “a lot of pet birds”. SPCA advice to those in an emergency evacuation is to untie or release any animal needing to be left outside. “This wasn’t always possible,” she says. “Many people couldn’t get to their home at all.” And for pet birds, caged either inside or out, the risks were plenty.
Overall, however, Liisa says the survival of almost all of the town’s animals was astonishing and much better than she expected.
Taking a day or two’s break to catch up on sleep following the many long nights, Liisa reflects on the mammoth task the organisation has undertaken. “I think we managed it pretty well,” she says. “We have such an excellent team here in Whakatane. They’ve just been awesome”.
Donations and support from the community, as well as substantial donations from pet food companies have all been “greatly appreciated,” she says. “We were able to distribute pet food to Taneatua, Ruatoki and Minginui as well,” she says, “all of who have been in a similar situation”.
She speaks highly of the specialised animal rescue teams that travelled to the area, of the support of other SPCA centres in the Bay of Plenty and of the local community. But her highest praise is reserved for her own team; both staff and the dedicated team of volunteers. “There is no way we could have done it without them.”
A cuddly, but somewhat unimpressed tabby remains one the few cats at the SPCA in Gateway Drive, not yet reunited with its owner.
Found in the Rimu Street area, the tabby is one of the nearly 120 cats rescued by the organisation, though a few elusive felines are still yet to be found.
Cody Taylor, currently seconded to Whakatane from the SPCA in Auckland says the organisation is currently using “humane traps” in an endeavour to rescue the final few out of the area.
“We leave food stations out near the homes of missing cats,” he says. After leaving the food accessible for a couple of days, it is then put inside of a trap with the hope that that cats are lured in.
“It’s mostly through the night that we catch them,” he says. “They are already stressed, so they tend to keep away from the noise going on during the day. They come out when it’s quiet.”
Traps are checked twice a day, with several cats sometimes being found on a morning check. Cody says if anyone sees a cat in a trap, they should alert the SPCA immediately so the cat can be collected as soon as possible. And likewise, if anyone has any concern regarding an animal in the flood zone, or knows of anyone needing assistance with pet food, they should contact the organisation.