Real Life

Sharon’s pet project ‘No animal left behind’

The volunteer offers creature comfort to those distressed in a disaster
Kellie Blizard

By day, Sharon Parackal is a senior engineer running major construction projects while also studying for an MBA. But when there’s an emergency, the 32-year-old quickly puts her considerable skills to use with Animal Evac New Zealand (AENZ) – the only dedicated animal disaster management charity in the country.

Flash flooding in Auckland and the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle in Hawke’s Bay has seen the exceptional organisation leap into action in recent weeks as life-threatening weather events forced people to leave their animals behind.

AENZ has a nationwide network of highly trained volunteers working to evacuate, support and advocate for animals in times of crisis.

For Sharon, this meant being called up as a deployment team leader – a new role to her but one she thrived in.

Sharon and fellow volunteer Hannah with bunny Chungus and bearded dragon Autumn.

“We turned up in Māngere as it was transitioning from a 24-hour shelter to a community centre, not exactly sure what we’d find,” recalls Sharon, explaining the priority was creating a base where those affected could seek help. “We were given a corner and the mission grew from there.

“People had been told they couldn’t take their pets to Civil Defence shelters, so some were refusing to leave home. Once we realised this, we worked with other agencies to let the community know they could bring pets.

“They’re a part of your family and the anxiety after being separated in a crisis is huge, so it was really important to make sure pets and whānau could stay together.”

Sharon also coordinated a massive volunteer outreach effort where, with the assistance of Māori wardens, they were able to go door to door and get pet food, supplies and vet advice directly into homes.

“It was easily more than 1000 people we were able to help in some way,” she tells.

Called out to Hawke’s Bay, Sharon did it all over again in February, coordinating a team of volunteers to meet the needs of animals and their owners.

“One of the keys things I’ve learned is that timely messaging around where they can find help is really important to people who are anxious and stressed, and not sure what the hours ahead of them hold,” explains Sharon.

The swift-water team in action in Hawke’s Bay.

“We were able to help Civil Defence include specific messaging for animals. It may not be as sexy or exciting as animal rescue, but I feel quite proud we were able to make some of those key changes.”

While Sharon was running the very important support services side, highly trained AENZ volunteers were also able to assist with extracting stranded animals, like Olly, an 11-year-old golden retriever. Olly spent 18 hours alone and scared in a flooded home after his owner was helicoptered out the day before.

“The swift- water team carried Olly for several kilometres to get him to safe high ground and reunited with his owner.”

Thanks to AENZ, Olly and many other animals, including horses, sheep, goats and pigs were also rescued.

AENZ vet nurse volunteer Christy checking on a puppy post-flooding.

Sharon says the specialised training provided by AENZ is incredible and includes courses specific to flood response, fire and other natural disasters.

“We’ve got people who are trained to go into high or fast-moving water,” she tells. “In this case, lots of animals were trapped by flooding, so they were able to go and check on them and in some cases like Olly, they can extract the animal to safety.”

AENZ was also deployed to assist in animal welfare efforts during the Nelson fires in 2019, as well as sending a team to rescue animals from the 2020 Australian bushfires.

While it’s been a hectic time, Sharon can’t recommend volunteering highly enough.

Her desire to join the organisation was first fuelled when she lost her beloved cat Aurora, a mixed-breed SPCA kitten she raised into adulthood.

Over six weeks of searching for Aurora, Sharon met many people working and volunteering in the animal welfare space, and was impressed by their selfless commitment.

“I could see they were doing it completely off their own bat because of love and passion,” she enthuses. “They were amazing people and I wanted to get involved.”

It can be emotionally taxing, and Sharon knows how vital it is to make sure she stays on top of her own and her team’s wellbeing. But it’s all worth it to be there for animals and humans when they need it most.

“No one should ever underestimate the connection of people and animals, and the value of keeping them together during a crisis.”

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