As our hearts and lives begin to rebuild and pick up the pieces after the devastating fires that have swept our nation these last few months, we have taken the time to reflect on those doing the hard, immensely critical and sometimes unnoticed work. The RFS and help services, undoubtedly the hero’s we are so greatly thankful for, but we would also like to pay our endless gratitude to a non-for-profit group who has been there on the forefront – Animal Welfare League NSW, known also as AWL NSW.

We sit down with Mark Slater, AWL NSW CEO and discuss what AWL has been dealing with these last few months.

Hi Mark, thank you for taking the time to chat with Just For Pets today. Firstly, we would like to say thank you on behalf of NSW for the hard work your organisation has done during this time of great turmoil. 

Would you mind please highlighting for our readers just what Animal Welfare League NSW is and your role in our community?

The role of Animal Welfare League was established 61 years ago where we were founded as an alternative to the RSPCA. We don’t compete with them nor do we criticise them we just offer another option for animal welfare. Our role in the community straddles that of an enforcement agency for the Department of Primary Industries and State Government under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal Act. We also provide veterinary services and support of animal welfare through mechanisms such as our mobile veterinary clinic which we launched last year. As well as a companion animal de-sexing scheme through a branch network where we provide subsidised de-sexing servicing for pension card holders for their animals to ensure premium health for those animals, education services as well as rehoming and foster care services to NSW public. It is a fairly comprehensive service provision that we provide that can be accessed through all of our NSW 20 branches.

What has been AWL’s role during the fires? 

When it came to Wingham and Taree in November last year I was asked by the Department of Primary Industries to head up there and to have a look at what was happening on the ground as that fire at Taree had been burning for a couple of months, then due to catastrophic weather, it teed off. So, we went and had a look and obviously there were a lot of drought-affected animals, that in itself raises welfare issues but then to add fire, it just exacerbates these issues and as an enforcement agency, we can help primary producers in their decision-making processes. After a few days on the ground, my assessment was that we needed to deploy the mobile veterinary clinic. So, we had a team head up there to provide as much help as we could to the community as first responders. Then, when it came to the far south coast, I was called on New Year’s Eve by the government to see if we could deploy to Bega the following day – which we did as a team with the Mobile Vet Clinic. We were deployed to Cooma where we were briefed, then we headed off to Bega the following day. Our role was to look after animals within the agriculture district and we were also providing first responder assistance to all of the emergency operation centres and the evacuation centres for people that were evacuated with animals from horses, sheep to companion animals. We were there to provide assistance, care, veterinary services, as well as medication for those people from Bega to Cooma all the way to Moruya. We travelled amongst those emergency evacuation centres to monitor and ensure the welfare of people’s animals.

On Saturday 4th where the situation became catastrophic, I had two teams on the ground moving through the fires, helping the Police and the RFS with evacuations, picking animals up and helping them. We then deployed the next day to the fire grounds for disaster recovery which we continued to do until Wednesday where we were retracted to Kemps Creek. Our role is very much as first responders and to deal with things as they are happening.

What would you say has been the greatest struggle for AWL during this time? 

Externally for us the biggest challenge was the shell shock of the community. On Saturday 4th I was talking to the chief of police, it was 2.15pm and when we walked out of the evacuation centre it was as dark as midnight, there was an ash mist in the air and this red glow and having been inside the whole day, this is when it dawned upon us how close and how big the issue we were dealing with was. That in itself, and then dealing with people and trying to help and provide them support when they were finding it very difficult to actually deal with what was going on and accept the enormity of the issue, and how fast it was happening was difficult. As a team, my team are consummate professionals who were briefed as to what to expect but for example when we landed in Cooma we got out of the car and it was burning your eyes and you wake up in the morning your hotel room is filled with smoke, there was no escaping it, it just permeates into everything.

My car still smells from smoke, still has ash in it. It is not until you separate yourself from the ash and the smoke that you realise the enormity of what you are dealing with. When we came back, as a team we have our mandatory stand down, where we process what we have just dealt with and you normalise that, but then you get back to work and get back to normal, then all of a sudden in comparison, the work or the normal becomes mundane and sometimes if you don’t deal with that emotion and the pressure of what you have just been through, bad habits can creep in, which can affect work performance as a team. We have psychiatric debriefings, as all emergency services do.

I was very happy with how we dealt with those challenges. The challenge now is an ongoing recovery for those communities and for those affected and the animals and the knock-on effect of primary produces losing breeding stock and a couple of hundred head of cattle and sheep, and the animals that they have got need to have access to food. Due to the drought situation the enormity of what we are dealing with now I don’t think has profoundly dawned on NSW society.

What has been a moment you can recall that instilled hope in you during these hard times and being on the forefront? 

It was a matter of a really simple mechanism that occurred on a daily basis, the colloquial nature of the Australian public. It wasn’t this throwaway line of, ‘she’ll be right mate,’ but I remember going into town in Bega and you would come out of your hotel room and the smoke was thick and there was concern but you could see this resilience in the community at the coal face in Bega where we were staged and the community were aware and they shell-shocked but they weren’t going to let it beat them down. They would come to the emergency providers distraught and with concern for themselves and others, but they also had the tools to deal with the situation currently and their recovery immediately after that. The day after the Sunday we went out on the fire grounds to help and look for animals and to administer euthanasia and veterinary work as it was required and you are driving through fire ground still burning at 5-6 foot from tree stumps and the enormity of what you are dealing with is in your face and you get to these people that are still there and they are trapped and they are scared but they knew what they are dealing with and they are not oblivious and that sense of true grit which is what allowed me to look past what we were dealing with.

As the CEO of AWL, I was also responsible for my crew on the ground and I need to employ an appropriate sense of leadership as well as to be honest with my team on the ground which gave me great tools to self-manage. I went back down a week after with our media team just to revisit some of the people to see how they were going, and the fires teed off again. We were in the field talking to one of the primary producers just north of Cobargo and the next thing the winds came up and the fires started again and we headed to Bega evacuation and we turned around and not even 200 metres in front of us, there was a wall of fire in front of us. It happened so quickly and for the first, it took us by surprise and then you get back into this algorithm of “ok, this is disaster recovery response situation and this feeling of this is what we are dealing with and we are the first-responders,” and you are driving through these fire grounds again and it’s almost a normalised situation at this point and it’s almost surreal. And we are not fighting fires and nowhere near the level responsibility that firefighters were providing. It is an unreal situation in the surest meaning of the word. The days are long and you don’t digest the fatigue until you get done.

Where can our readers go to learn more about the AWL and the generous work you do? 

I think number one as a community is to keep talking about it. It gets very easy with the omnipresence of media we get force-fed a lot of information and it easy to shut out the noise but we need to as a community to keep talking about it and to challenge our government to ensure it stays on their minds. Secondly, stay active on the recovery on social media channels. Thirdly, be educated. Don’t be negative, it’s easy to throw rocks. Go to the source and get context. rather than repeat information without being informed.

And lastly, where can we go to help donate to AWL and what is needed donation/funding wise? 

I have always said this about giving. If people want to give money, do the reading to find the organisation that suits their intent; whether it be AWL, Wires, the RFS or Red Cross etc. Find the organisation that aligns with your core values.

The other thing would be to give time, go to these places and spend money in these communities. I think you have to think about what outcome you hope to see. As for Animal Welfare League, we are first responders’ so we go in with our mobile B Double trailer with our inspectors and veterinary teams so I think efforts in maintaining that service and funds to build capacity in that space would be greatly utilised.

Thank you so much for your time today, Mark. It has been my absolute pleasure to hopefully help shed some light on the heart-warming work AWL NSW is doing for our country at this time of great struggle.  

If you would like to donate to AWL NSW please head to their website to learn more about the incredible work they are doing.