Behind the Smoke Screen: The Hidden Victims of the Australian Bushfires

Feb 14, 2020Climate Change and Animals

Written by Anna Mackiewicz.

Images by Jo-Anne McArthur.  

To view more images from this story, please visit our Australia Bushfires gallery on the We Animals Archive.

In the media coverage of the Australian bushfires, which have so far burned 10 million hectares of land, few headlines have mentioned the suffering and deaths of cows, sheep and other farmed animals.

Saleyard in New South Wales.

Farmers in NSW, having endured years of one of Australia’s worst droughts, have strategies for dealing with bushfire. But this season has been different.

The New South Wales state government has confirmed 13,120 deaths, and in South Australia alone 50,000 have been confirmed dead, burned in the fires or euthanized due to their injuries. With other states yet to report, including Victoria where some of the worst fires of the season have razed whole towns to the ground, many more animals are unaccounted for and the numbers are bound to rise.

Top: Animals grazing in a haze of smoke near Corryong.
Bottom: A steer walks through a charred landscape near Buchan.

At the livestock sale yards in Yass, sales of sheep were up 8% and cattle 56% the week after the fires blazed through NSW. According to Tom McCormack, the Administration Manager, these numbers were a direct result of the fires and the long drought that had preceded them, which has made keeping and caring for animals increasingly difficult. 

Saleyard in New South Wales.

Farmers in NSW, having endured years of one of Australia’s worst droughts, have strategies for dealing with bushfire. But this season has been different. The fires have been so dense, and the heat and wind so unrelenting, that flames have migrated from forest to grasslands and sped across the dry paddocks. The last month has shown us harrowing images of cows in mass graves, bloated with smoke.

For the animals who did not die in the smoke, the grassfires have been fierce enough to burn their hooves, and their teats and penises. The heat and the stress have taken their toll – pregnant mothers suffer miscarriages.

Many have and continue to be privately sent to slaughter.

In the case of dairy cows, their burned teats mean they are unable to produce milk, and so they are no longer commercially viable. Unlike the dogs we usher into our cars, or the wildlife we knit pouches for, these animals are not afforded the luxury of expensive veterinary care and rehabilitation. Those things have a higher value than their lives.

Those who remain wait in limbo for their fates to be determined. In burned paddocks there is nothing to eat, and many farmers rely on donated food, rationing out hay bales to starving animals. The road closures mean that extra food can’t reach them. Soon, they will need to sell their animals. They wait for the roads to open, and market prices to rise.

Many cows are going to abattoirs even if they survived the fires.

The media coverage of the fires shows that we see this disaster through the lens of the suffering of farmers, not of animals.

There are no donations pouring in to help care for injured farmed animals, although there are numerous crowdfunding campaigns to help farmers get back on their feet. Little interest has been taken in the horrific injuries suffered by cows and sheep, or the way in which they are sold off when the cost of their care exceeds their market value. 

A cow stands on the scorched land in the Corryong area.

The bushfire crisis has also revealed our arbitrary relationship to animals based on the stories we tell about them. While we individually place food and water in our yards for displaced wildlife, injured cows are trucked to the slaughterhouse. As a society, we don’t mourn the loss of farmed animals. The momentum for their salvation is not the same as for wildlife – they are not valued simply for being who they are, but for the way they serve us. And when they cease to serve that function – when their udders stop producing, or they can no longer gain weight – we send them to the same fate we have just saved them from.

Written by Anna Mackiewicz.

Images by Jo-Anne McArthur.  

To view more images from this story, please visit our Australia Bushfires gallery on the We Animals Archive.

Share This