We interviewed Gerardo Huertas (our animal in disasters director) to remember those who lost their lives and the ones that helped.
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On December 26, at 7:59 AM, one of the most powerful undersea earthquakes ever recorded struck the Sumatra island off Indonesia’s coast. The ocean floor quickly rose to 40m and sent waves of 30 feet into Banda Aceh.
People and animals living near the coast had little hope. Everything was destroyed by the waves, causing severe damage. It was one of the most deadly disasters ever recorded, with nearly 230,000 people and thousands sustaining injuries.
Numerous animals were unable to feel the vibrations and fled for higher ground. However, many others were left starving, injured and stranded. Our teams were dispatched to India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand to provide emergency veterinary care, rescue operations, and establish mobile clinics. Our operation lasted almost two years and helped Sri Lankan animals the most. We helped 117 548 animals that were affected by the tsunami.
Gerardo, were you there when you heard of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004?
After a year of work in Latin America and Caribbean, I was back at home in Costa Rica. The Indian Ocean Tsunami, which was 10 times more powerful than the hurricane that struck Japan in December 2011, occurred during major disasters.
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How long did it take you to get there after the tsunami?
We flew in 10 days after the tsunami. One team flew to Thailand, while another went to Indonesia. My team flew straight to Sri Lanka after stopping at our London office.
The CEO asked that we (now the World Society for the Protection of Animals – WSPA) lead the work in Sri Lanka. Our experience and our systematic approach convinced other NGOs that they should follow our example. By ‘gridding the most affected coastal areas, we coordinated with other organizations and divided the grid amongst the various NGOs according their abilities. We also collaborated with the Ministry of Health as well as UN rescue/relief agencies.
The crew of the flight to Sri Lanka learned about our mission and gave us crayons to distribute to the children who survived. It was clear that people were willing to help in any small way possible.
Colombo’s airport was chaotic. We set up veterinary teams, vehicles, and equipment to cover as much territory as possible as soon as we arrived at Colombo. Traffic was terrible and rescue and relief efforts couldn’t get to the affected areas. We were stuck on narrow roads for up to five hours each day, waiting in long queues to reach the affected areas.
How much damage did you see?
An elderly man said that he noticed a cat running uphill, followed by a rat. He saw the cat running up a hill, and he began to run too.
Animals that are domesticated feel less danger than animals that are not. So pets and cattle were no threat.
Although the first wave was not as strong as in Banda Aceh it was still very powerful and destroyed everything that was in its path. The next wave was a tsunami that swept away everything. The waves swept away everything within a distance of a kilometre. The destruction of buildings left only small pieces. Railroads were twisted like spaghetti. Rescue and recovery teams continued to search for bodies. It was almost like a bloody blender.
There are not many people who can swim, just like on every other large island. However, that wouldn’t have been helpful. Many people actually walked onto the beaches of sand to see what was happening when the sea pulled back. There wasn’t a culture of being prepared for tsunamis. Many people and animals died, including pets and livestock, who lived near the coastline.
This chaos was accompanied by spots that were left unaffected by the currents and waves. It was almost unnerving to see how calm the ocean appeared every day.
We provided what help?
My role was to coordinate the operation and lead coordination with other NGOs. In the beginning, we worked with the UN and then the Ministry of health. They were responsible for rabies in dogs. We eventually worked with other non-governmental organizations like the American Humane Association or Four Paws.
To assess the impact on animals, we first surveyed the entire coast. Many animals died and their bodies were washed away. Most of the injuries sustained by survivors were caused by the debris that struck them in the water. Our vets quickly treated dogs, cattle, and other animals.
My other role was to speak with the government about the rabies scare the international media had created. Sri Lanka’s government announced that they would mass kill any dogs still alive in order to stop the spread of the disease.
In two press conferences, we denounced the plan as ineffective and cruel. We convinced the government that this was not the best method to combat the disease and organized teams to vaccinate 20% and perform sterilisations. Many dogs were saved by this quick and persuasive intervention.
We then funded and built mobile clinics that provided emergency veterinary care for injured animals. They traveled up to 200km per day and treated 250 animals every day. We saw mainly dogs but also cats and animals that had been affected.
Parasites can quickly spread after a disaster such as this and animals can contract diseases like mange. This was solved by giving anti-parasitic and de-worming treatments to the animals.
While I was only there for a few months, there were World Animal Protection team members there for almost two years. They worked on spaying/neutering programs with local vets as well as the mobile clinic.
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Do you have any memories of specific animals you’ve encountered?
We took care of many dogs, some of whom were confused and hungry. We fed them well and showed kindness to them. They were happy. It was a relief that we were able to save them from being murdered.
We worked closely with Dr Nalinika, a local vet, during the relief operation. We were told by Dr Nalinika how her dog led her to a hill in a field that was only a metre above all the waves surrounding it. They stayed there for the majority of the day, until they were finally rescued.
One of my jobs was to work with livestock and I came across a Holstein cow that was almost entirely white. My veterinarian friend asked me if it was an albino. After examining it, however, he stated that it was very old and could hardly move because of arthritis. We aren’t used to dairy cows reaching this advanced age.
Which are your most vivid memories from that time?
I can still remember thinking about how horrible it would be for the government to mass-cull surviving dogs on the basis of a rabies scare that was generated by international media. It was something we fought for and a great achievement. It was a wake-up call for me.
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It was hard to coordinate with other protection agencies at the beginning. It was almost like herding cats! It was also difficult to reach certain areas. Due to ongoing armed conflict against the Sri Lankan army, we were unable to cover all of the areas that the Tamil resistance covered.