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'Noah's Ark' refuge for Australia's flood-hit animals

Cattle seek out the highest ground after the swollen Fitzroy River broke its banks and flooded the city of Rockhampton and surrounding farmland on January 5, 2011. Tens of thousands of people in Rockhampton braced for complete isolation as waters, which have inundated an area bigger than France and Germany and closed the town's airport and railway, lapped at the last remaining road link. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Rockhampton, Australia (AFP) Jan 9, 2011
If Australia is facing a flood disaster of "biblical" proportions, Central Queensland University's basketball courts must be Noah's Ark, a yapping, yowling menagerie of rescued animals.

Volunteers busily cut lengths of wire fencing for enclosures as animal welfare group RSPCA ambulances and trucks return from patrols of Rockhampton's swamped streets with a host of sodden and frightened cats, dogs and birds.

"Most times they're glad just to be with someone, because they're just scared, hungry, thirsty -- well, they can't say thirsty 'cause there's plenty of water to drink," explains chief animal welfare inspector Laurie Stageman.

"We get reports, we'll go out and wade through the water and get them," he told AFP.

Some of the animals were left behind by families that had to evacuate at short notice or had no room for their beloved pets and have called to ask for a rescue.

But others, especially dogs, have been found wandering far from home wet and confused, after taking fright when the flooding hit and swimming, in some cases, a considerable distance downstream.

Stageman says domestic pets are pretty resilient -- "they will find somewhere, even if it's just a post they can sit on" -- but the agricultural centre's livestock have been hit hard by the disaster.

He watched about 30 cattle washed down the river when the floods first hit Rockhampton last month, and a number have been found dead and injured.

One bewildered cow ended up in the Pacific Ocean, a "fair whack" from where it was swept into the surging river that carried it there, and Stageman said it was discovered by two Vietnamese fishermen.

"They put some flotation under it but it died, it drowned," he said.

Decomposing animal corpses pose a serious disease risk to flooded communities, but they also heighten danger for residents by drawing the region's famous saltwater crocodiles.

"Any flooded-up areas, crocs will go and explore it because it could be an easy food source," said Stageman. "There's some big salties (saltwater crocodiles) out there."

A number have already been spotted roaming swamped areas at the bottom of residential streets, and Stageman said he had been told a crocodile was seen savaging a dog.

Compounding the risks for animals and their rescuers in the water were highly poisonous and angry snakes, flushed from their nests at the height of mating season.

Stageman said there could be as many as one million snakes in the water.

It could be some weeks before waters recede -- a long wait for the horses, donkeys and even camels holding patient vigil on whatever patches of dry land they have been able to find.

Helicopter and boat crews take food to stranded animals and residents care for new-found charges where they can, but it is the ones in hiding or those swept far afield who are suffering and hungry that worry Stageman.

"We rely on reports, because there's only so much we can see from the boat," he said.

Having their pets safe and dry in Stageman's refuge behind the evacuation centre is some comfort for the hundreds left homeless by the floods, says one Red Cross volunteer, Flora.

Two men have set up their camp beds in the enclosure so they can sleep beside their dogs at night.

"I think it's an important part of the healing process," Flora said. "They are like family, and it's a great comfort to them."

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