Editor's note: Described as one of the worst since 1924 by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the rains in Kerala have left over 350 dead and rendered thousands of people homeless. According to the latest tally, 80,000 have been rescued so far. Over 1,500 relief camps have been set up across the state that currently house at least 2,23,139 people. In a multi-part series, Firstpost will attempt to analyse the short-term and long-term impact of these unprecedented floods on the lives of the people, economy of the state, and the environment.
During disasters, nearly every call for rescue has an urgency to it, and everyone thinks his situation is more critical than another's. So when the animal rescue helpline, set up during the Kerala floods, got a call saying there were snakes up a tree in Chengannur, a town in Alappuzha district, it was dealt with as yet another critical call — as was designed because snakes tend to escape faster and create more panic than any other animal. However, when the due of Dinesh Baba and Arjun arrived in Chengannur to rescue the reptiles, they were in no way prepared for what they saw there — fast flowing water everywhere, and around 200 people gathered around the tree with their phones out taking selfies.
Among this chaos were two large pythons, nervously coiled up in the tree. It was apparent that the snakes had taken refuge up in the branches from the deluge, choosing the safety of the tree over being swept away by the floodwaters. It is a rare sight to see two snakes together, and just the novelty of the situation could have put the reptiles' lives in danger. Had they attempted to move out of that haven, the 200 off gathered around the tree would not have blinked before beating them to a brutal death. Baba and Arjun's timing could not have been any better, as they quickly disbursed the crowd and secured and moved the snakes to safety, before handing them over to Forest Department officials, as is the protocol.
Incidents such as this only make Kerala a unique experience for unexpected reasons. As the flood spread, little did we realise the fury it would unleash on the state, and authorities did not fathom that it would leave such a large footprint from Wayanad to Pathanamthitta. Except for two districts, the deluge has left a lasting imprint across the remaining districts of Kerala.
Kerala has always been a bother for animal rescues and facilities and has always had a dearth of rescuers and welfare workers. This is why everyone was caught by surprise when the floods arrived and reality stuck. However, the wonderful network of animal welfare workers, NGOs, volunteers and rescuers from across the countries soon connected, and within a couple of days, we swung into action to take on the massive task of helping the animals stranded in the floods.
The small network of local rescuers in Kerala were on their feet instantly, rushing to take animals to safety, helping people move them to higher zones and also helping to bring the rest together. Soon after, people from other states started springing to action. Chennai and Bangalore responded instantly, with rescuers trying to find means to get to areas that needed help, making Kochi their point of convergence. The teams with their special areas of expertise moved in at great speed, bringing together different experiences to do what was needed to handle something of this magnitude.
When we got started, we did not have any idea of the scale of destruction and disruption caused by the Kerala floods. So what began as a spontaneous train of thought to save every animal we possibly could quickly transformed into a strategic and structured rescue operation. Through known people and shared numbers, calls started pouring in, and soon, the handful who were running around to try to save the hapless animals were inundated with messages. So this made channeling the calls the first course of action. Overnight, a call centre was activated, a dedicated number procured and tech solutions deployed to establish a streamlined way to gather, sort and handle cases.
Fourteen district coordinators were assigned, with teams of rescuers and volunteers armed with packs of food and basic relief material raring to go after cases. The call centre began to receive phone calls as social media helped spread the message, and cases were assigned and relayed to the respective coordinators. Chaos soon changed to control. In the meantime, other organisations and volunteers mobilised — teams came in from other cities with food supplies and other material, tapping into every known contact for help.
Some kind-hearted people even called to offer space for the stranded animals, while others opened their doors to help set up makeshift shelters. However, as more and more rescuers ventured out, they found themselves losing the battle to the rising waters. Movement became a problem, leaving them with the task of locating boats and rafts to ferry the animals to safe zones, especially from the low lying areas of Aluva and Chengannur. Access was a nightmare, with volunteers losing sense of direction and landmarks. Road signs meant nothing! But thankfully, data networks pulled through as rescuers jumped from vehicle to boat and boat to kayak when they could, even swimming and wading through the waters when required. It's clear that the rescues weren't without challenges.
On a number of occasions, the operation would start with just the description of the scenario — "please save my dogs, they are in my house and have not eaten for three days now." Rescuers would get there with a heavy heart, readying themselves for the most ghastly sights, only to be greeted by the resilient animals jumping with joy on the sight of help. Amid the dire state of affairs, this often gave the welfare workers an opportunity to break into mini celebrations and enjoy the sight of the animals gulping down their food.
Take the case of the 18 dogs rescuers Nishant and Peter encountered in Chengannur. What was expected to be a rescue of just a few dogs turned into a nightmarish operation. The duo reached the spot only to find the 18 dogs locked in dingy cages, and floodwaters already at their level. German Shepherds, Dachshunds, Labradors, Beagles — the place reeked of unethical breeding, made clearer by the terrible state the dogs were in. Had the rescuers not reached the spot, the sight that would have greeted people after the floods would have been imprinted in their minds for long.
Sadly, not all the attempts had a happy ending. From drowned to critical dogs, trapped cobras to injured elephants, the number of animal casualties runs high. It would be myopic to rejoice at the sign of a low toll among domestic animals, as the real figure will be revealed only after the water recedes and authorities take stock.
The damage caused by the floods is extensive, and animals have a tough fight as they vie for attention, space and priority in a place where human casualties and costs of infrastructure destruction are humongous. Rescuers had this experience at several places, when animals were denied space on boats and trucks while people were being evacuated to safer ground. The situation is expected to only get worse for the animals, given that this is all in a state known for its reckless culling of stray dogs and also for the number of elephants that have died in captivity, taking the veil off the colourful decorated exhibits at temple festivals. This is why one of the first social media campaigns launched to help animals during the floods was to ask people not to leave their pets behind, helpless. Locking them in rooms, chaining them to poles and sealing them in cages were all wrong ways to curb their natural survival instincts. Some sensible thinking here could have saved more lives.
Educating people, creating awareness, spreading the message of love and coexistence and collaborative efforts to build infrastructure for the safekeeping and welfare of animals is all required. Flash camps to care for the rescued, abandoned, affected and sick animals and vaccinations, rejuvenation, treatment and surgeries will all take priority as things unravel, when the state rises again from the calamity.
Remember, all of this is out of our understanding of the situation in cities and towns, of animals both domestic and captive. But the real impact of the floods in the jungles is an enigma. A frightening, spine-chilling saga has yet to unfold. From what we have heard, it is going to be numbing. Stay connected, and let's do our best to give the deserving a new lease of life.
If you care for animals and the ecosystem that has been destroyed beyond measure, join hands to help. You can volunteer to join those on the ground rescuing the trapped, sick and dead animals. If you are in Kerala, you can offer support by providing some space in your home, office, shop or garage to an animal in need till it can be taken to a rightful place. If you are outside Kerala, you can help rescuers, NGOs and vets with supplies and relief material — from food bowls to antiseptics and vaccines to antibiotics — or better, open your purse to build a corpus. When the rest of Kerala shakes itself dry and rises again, animals will also need a place they can call their own, a shelter they can be taken to when the need arises and a place to provide healthcare.
The author is an animal activist and motivational speaker
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Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 17:10:13 IST