Des Grace and his 15-year-old daughter, Rahleigha, thought they were hearing the death cries of two of their dogs, Big Boy and Rex.
They had been sitting on the kitchen bench of their house in Lismore when the water came up so fast that they decided to get out at 3.30am. One of their dogs, Ripper, followed them, but Big Boy and Rex were too scared to go through the water to the front door.
Des and Rahleigha would spend the next eight hours in kayaks tied to the house before climbing up a tree on to the roof. They could hear the two dogs banging their heads against the ceiling before father and daughter were rescued by a police boat.
“It was very upsetting,” Des says.
“Dad tried to rip the roof sheet off to get them through, but he’s actually just had surgery – like a mastectomy – so he has no muscle in one side,” says his other daughter, Annanekah. The water had come right up to the roof of the house and they thought the dogs had perished.
“But they got up into the loft in the roof cavity – obviously there was enough room for them,” Annanekah says. “They were there for two days before we could get someone to rescue them.”
Rex and Big Boy, now in foster care until their homeless family can take them back, are among countless animals displaced by the flood. Staffie Big Boy – who had never had separation issues before – now won’t let his foster carer out of his sight.
Derek Knox, from the Animal Rescue Cooperative (ARC), says difficult decisions were made during the floods.
“When the floods hit, people had to make insane choices of what to save and even which animals they could save,” Knox says. “It is an area with a lot of animals, and people were rescued from roof cavities with animals crying from the roof.”
From the beginning, Kate Morris, from the charity Willow Tree Sanctuary, was on the ground. “The moment the roads opened, we were handing out donations to people on the ground and to the choppers and helping with our own search and rescue efforts,” she says.
“We heard many harrowing stories of animals in trouble and sent out our volunteers and staff wherever we could,” Morris says. “We helped dogs trapped in houses, rescued cats living in tents with their owners, and helped farm animals that had been swept up in the flood waters.
“We had a call from a woman who had seen a horse in Bungawalbin standing in rising flood waters with just its nose above water. We took a call to help two great danes stranded on a roof that couldn’t fit in the rescue boat. We saved 10 cats from a flooded house in Coraki. We took a call from a flooded vet clinic about a cow stuck in River Street, Ballina.”
Morris says there is “a sea of displaced animals that have been showing up in the flood-affected areas”.
“In the early days of the floods, local vets started reaching out to us as the lost and displaced animals started flowing into their clinics as strays.”
Knox says vets have dealt with “pet animals ranging from large pythons to goats, chickens to cats and dogs”.
People already traumatised by losing everything are being further traumatised by having to give up pets to go into temporary housing which cannot take animals. The lack of pet-friendly accommodation “really compounds the stress and trauma”, says Sali Bracewell of ARC.
Knox says: “There is nowhere safe for animals to stay … They have no place to go.”
People are choosing to live in their cars rather than give up the only thing they have left: the animals they love. One couple in touch with Knox are living with four dogs and three kids in a cabin without power or water.
For five nights, Chris Trew and his wife slept in cars with two children, three dogs, two cats and a snake. “My wife has got a car and [my] son has bought a car. We sort of shared the dogs. My son would have the two dogs one night and the next night I’d have the two dogs. They are up all night, barking and carrying on.”
The snake had lost its enclosure, Trew says. “We had to handle him quite a bit because you have got to try and keep it warm, so you just keep it on your body, he wraps around your neck.” The snake is now at a vet until they can get another enclosure.
Others are going back into uninhabitable houses rather than surrendering a pet. Morris talks of the help provided by Willow Tree Sanctuary to a man named Doug.
“One of Doug’s beloved dogs died in the floods and his other 14-year-old dog was taken to the local pound, terrified and deeply traumatised,” Morris says. “The pound thought the dog was deaf and blind because it had shut down so much. Doug left the evacuation centre so he could bring his dog home, despite their house still being filthy.”
Other animals have not been so lucky.
“We have seen a massive spike in the number of animals that have been surrendered over the past two weeks as the enormity of rebuilding lives with pets in tow becomes too overwhelming for some people,” Morris says. “Many more animals, both lost and surrendered pets, are ending up in local pounds and pushing them to capacity.
“It is incredibly distressing, and we are doing our very best to get as many out as possible, but this is sadly an ongoing problem writ large by these disastrous floods.”
At the frontline and in addition to supplying food, medical and support, Willow Tree Sanctuary and ARC are finding foster carers to look after displaced animals until they can be with their people again. Knox says they are starting to get “a flood of people offering to help and a flood of people saying, ‘I need your help’”.
“Over 150 people have offered space in their homes so far and that number increases every day.”
Sarah McKenzie, from Northern Rivers Animal Services, has taken nine dogs and four cats from Cabbage Tree Island, an Aboriginal mission that was completely flooded. They have all lost their homes.
She says she is aiming to get the animals into “emergency foster care homes that can take care of them, where it’s a bit nicer for them than being at the shelter”.
“Given that it’s going to be a protracted thing, we just don’t know how long it’s going to be. They absolutely love their pets on Cabbage Tree Island. They’re really upset to have to leave them here.
“There are a lot of generous people in the community that have offered to open up their homes and care for these pets until the owners are able to take them back. So yeah, it’s awful for everyone.”