New strategic refocus: saving more animals through disaster risk reduction

Animal Evac New Zealand Strategic Reset


Animal Evac New Zealand marked its fifth-year anniversary in May 2023, and it is timely to reflect on the progress and achievements it has made during this time, but to also look forward to where it best can make an impact to promote animal-inclusive resilient communities.

The genesis for Animal Evac New Zealand was the 2017 Edgecumbe Flood, where over 1000 animals were left behind following the urgent evacuation of the town when the flood wall failed and rapidly inundated the area. At that time, the New Zealand Fire Service (as it was known then) had no mandate for animal rescue and this responsibility fell onto numerous volunteer groups including Wellington SPCA’s Animal Rescue Unit (later becoming the SPCA National Rescue Unit) to effect a major rescue operation. At this time, though MPI had responsibility for the coordination of animal rescue at a national and regional level, and to have a plan on how it would meet such mandates under the National Civil Defence Emergency Management Plan Order, no such plans were in place in Bay or Plenty or elsewhere. It also took nearly four years for MPI to publish their After Action Report for one of the most historic animal related disasters.

Months later the Edgecumbe Flood, the SPCA underwent a national merger, and it was foreseen that the new amalgamated charity would not continue to support the Wellington SPCA’s Animal Rescue Unit, so several likeminded individuals established Animal Evac New Zealand to address the anticipated capability gap. Surely enough, within a year of the national merger, the Animal/National Rescue Unit after nearly 20 years of award-winning community service was disbanded.

The 2018 National Hui on Animal Welfare hosted by Hon. Meka Whaitiri MP (Associate Minister for Agriculture – Animal Welfare at the time) was held in Auckland, and Animal Evac New Zealand was the only group attended that raised and championed the issue of improved animal disaster management arrangements and consequently, “Animal welfare emergency response” was added into the Framework for Action. We also became the first and remain the only NZ registered charity that is a signatory to the Red Cross International Code of Conduct for disaster response NGOs.

Animal Evac New Zealand continued to lobby government and with the support of Gareth Hughes MP and former FEMA Director Craig Fugate, one of the most comprehensive reports on animal disaster management in the world was presented to Parliament in 2019. The Director of Civil Defence shortly afterwards wrote to Animal Evac New Zealand noting “this is a worthy piece of work that raises a number of important matters for consideration” and that the National Civil Defence Emergency Management Plan would be reviewed in the near future and these matters would be considered.

We then went onto calling for public submissions for animals to be better included into the National Disaster Resilience Strategy, leading to the greatest number of public submissions ever to be received in New Zealand on a civil defence strategy. Animals were again left out of the final strategy despite strong public support.

We made history again with successfully lobbying for the country’s first animal disaster bylaw passed by local government, thanks to the support of Kapiti Coast District Council who made it an offence under their dog control bylaws to tether a dog during extreme weather where it may be harmed, giving dog control officers the ability to issue infringement notices as well as a clear mandate to ensure the welfare of dogs during such events. This bylaw was modelled off the Texas Public Safety Code, their respective state law for disaster management.

We have not only acted nationally, but internationally with our successful deployment to the NSW Bushfires in Australia and creating the Global Animal Disaster Management Conference (GADMC®), the world’s largest online conference on animal disaster management. GADMC across the inaugural 2021 conference and the upcoming 2023 event has been sponsored by World Animal Protection, Four Paws, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Humane Society International, American Veterinary Medical Fund, Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience and many more iconic organisations. Again, our focus has been on preventing rather than being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, just responding and not addressing the root causes that harm animals in disasters.

Recent events have shown that there has been a major cultural shift in how emergency services see companion animals in disasters with the Auckland, largest civil defence emergency management group making the decision during recent flooding that all their evacuation centres would allow companion animals. This historical shift in policy was mirrored with new Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) swiftwater rescue teams being deployed and willingly ensuring that companion animals were rescued and evacuated alongside humans, taking the One Rescue approach that we have been espousing for many years now.

Over the past five years we have deployed to numerous emergencies in New Zealand, and there has been challenges in how we have been coordinated and treated. Our role to hold government to account has seen changes, with now animal emergency plans now in place for each civil defence emergency management group (though they have no legal status as not incorporated by reference under section 51 of the CDEM Act 2002) and a suite of MPI published After Action Reports for various emergencies since.

However, more work is needed with peer reviewed research in the International Journal of Emergency Management finding that less than 7% of lessons identified from the 2017 Edgecumbe Flood were actually applied (“learned”) in the 2019 Nelson Fires. New Zealand’s animal disaster management framework remains sub-optimal and constantly responding without addressing mitigation and prevention is not sustainable or in the interests of animal welfare in the long term as well established in the recent doctoral thesis “A critical evaluation of the companion animal disaster management framework in New Zealand” authored by our Patron, Dr Steve Glassey.

With FENZ now taking a stronger interest in animal rescue, it is our belief that the provision of volunteer animal disaster rescue outside of FENZ undermines the government’s moral obligation to manage such high-risk operations. Through promoting a One Rescue approach, we need to advocate and support that human focused agencies include animals, and not absolve their responsibilities onto charities given that central government despite years of lobbying still refuses to allow animal disaster response costs to be reimbursed like done in the US who passed the Pet Emergency and Transportation Standards Act in 2006 just one year after Hurricane Katrina. New Zealand continues not to have animal inclusive animal disaster laws and consequently, animal welfare and human safety is put at risk.

Outside of field rescue operations, the National Civil Defence Emergency Management Plan Order mandates that local government animal control be responsible for companion animal temporary emergency care, transport and accommodation. We worked with Wellington City Council to create the country’s first civil defence Pet Friendly Shelter plan, manual and functional exercise, creating a benchmark for other councils to follow. Again, absolving this responsibility onto animal welfare charities is not sustainable, especially if government funding is not provided in contrast to international best practice such as in the US.

Our public education has been momentous, with many volunteers actively promoting animal-inclusive disaster preparedness messages to the public at community events across the country. Even in responses, such as the Australian Bushfires we continued to promote prevention and preparedness with the distribution of pet carriers to communities at high risk of evacuation. These efforts were recognised with Animal Evac New Zealand being the Supreme Winner at the Wellington Region Community Awards. Our drawing power created the fastest growing if not one of the largest civil defence volunteer organisations in recent history with over 400 volunteers being trained across the country.

Where are we now and what is next?

This leads us to where does Animal Evac New Zealand see ourselves now? We are the only national charity that partners with MPI to support animal disaster response that has no staff. What we do, we have done through the goodwill and time of our volunteers. What we have done has been herculean given our very limited financial resources and lack of staff. What is pleasing is that the environment has changed significantly since Animal Evac New Zealand was formed just five years ago. With plans in place, and credible organisations like FENZ taking an active role and interest in animal rescue, it is time for us to refocus on where we best can put our expertise and time. Simply put, many of the gaps that we filled because no other organisation wanted to step-up, have now been filled. Our mission is complete when we have achieved animal-inclusive resilient communities.

The Animal Evac New Zealand Board has given much thought as to where do the current gaps remain, and how can we continue to contribute to fill those gaps in a sustainable way with the limited resources we have. The Board passed a vote that it will no longer have an operational role in disasters, our focus will be on reduction and readiness within the comprehensive emergency management model. This means Animal Evac New Zealand following our successful lobbying, will refocus to strengthen our advocacy work to ensure government is accountable for implementing animal-inclusive resilience policies. We no longer will have to endure the conflict of having to work operationally with the government and at the same time ensure they are held accountable.

With reviews of the civil defence arrangements (following Cyclone Gabrielle) and likely review of fire services (following the fatal Wellington hostel fire), now is the time for Animal Evac New Zealand to create meaningful change and to mainstream that animals are core to emergency management, not an add-on function to agriculture departments.

This cultural shift is reflected internationally, with President Biden recently signing the PAW Act into federal law to mandate the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to lead a review of animal disaster law arrangements. New Zealand again, does not have any comparable laws to promote pet-inclusive disaster management arrangements.

With the Emergency Management Bill currently before Select Committee at Parliament, now is the time for us to put our efforts into ensuring our emergency management laws are modernised with specific inclusion of companion and service animals like has been done in the USA. We will be sending out further information in the coming weeks to rally public support for meaningful change.

We now plan to work with fire services to support and equipment them to carry out their newly found role in rescuing animals in emergency and disaster situations, not to continue to encourage animals as an afterthought for charities to care for. Already our fleet of three inflatable swiftwater rescue sleds (the “Maggies”) have been transferred to Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

We will continue to lobby government to ensure we have a robust and world leading animal disaster management framework. And we will continue to support mitigation and preparedness activities both at a national and international level to promote sharing of best practices to protect all animals wherever they may be. We also have joined the campaign for a Commissioner for Animal Welfare, noting our focus will be on having a Commissioner that can include animal disaster management under their purview. We see this as a critical mechanism for improved accountability and transparency in our national arrangement and ask that you sign the petition for a Commissioner for Animals at the SAFE website.

We will still need our network of volunteers, but with less training and operational demands. Our volunteers will continue to be an integral part of our movement as we will be needing them to be our ambassadors locally to advocate for the mainstreaming of animal disaster management arrangements through activities such as public speaking, writing submissions, promoting petitions and the like. It will mean that we can open up our membership with less cost and time barriers for anyone who shares our values to promote animal-inclusive disaster resilient communities.

We thank our hundreds of volunteers and thousands of supporters who have been with us through our journey. We know that our strategic reset will have a more sustainable impact on animal welfare and public safety in the long term. We hope you will continue to support us in our vision to recreate animal-inclusive resilient communities.

The Animal Evac New Zealand Trust Board

July 2023

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