Ontario’s animal rescuer Down Under

TVO.org speaks with Kitchener’s Heidi Bechtold about her trip to Australia — and her team’s “calling” to save animals threatened by the bushfires 
By Mary Baxter - Published on Feb 05, 2020
Heidi Bechtold travelled to New South Wales as part of a six-member volunteer Canadian rescue team. (Courtesy Heidi Bechtold)

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In mid-January, Heidi Bechtold left her Kitchener home for Calgary, knowing she wouldn’t be home for a while. Bechtold, owner and operator of Complete K9, a dog-walking and training business, had been following news of the Australian bushfires and knew she wanted to help. Experts estimate that more than 1 billion animals have died in the fires. “The devastation has been just terrible,” she says.

So Bechtold, 28, went west to join a six-member volunteer Canadian rescue team led by Brad Pattison, a dog trainer and former television host based in Kelowna, British Columbia. “The team and I, we’re all together; we have a calling to come and help and save some animals,” she says.

The team used donations to fly to New South Wales and has been on the ground ever since, rescuing animals and leaving food supplies behind for those that remain. “It’s a lot of unknowns,” says Bechtold, describing long working hours and plans that change abruptly. “Days are getting mixed up. We're up at night. We're sleeping during the mornings.”

TVO.org spoke with Bechtold and Pattison on day six of their mission, which is expected to last at least three weeks. At the time, the group was stationed in Sussex Inlet, in the South Coast region of New South Wales.

Is this the first time you've done something like this?

Heidi Bechtold: Myself, yes. But the Brad Pattison team has been involved in multiple natural catastrophes around the world, including the Calgary floods, [the earthquake in] Haiti, Hurricane Katrina, the Kelowna fires — those types of things.

What have you been doing so far?

Brad Pattison: Two days ago, we were putting food ringlets — they look like kabobs — around burnt trees with apples, pears, and something similar to cantaloupe: rock melons.

Those are for sugar gliders [and bats and flying foxes] and other little critters that might be alive in the forest.

animal rescuers at work in Australia in 2020
The Canadian team has been rescuing animals and leaving food supplies behind for those that remain. (Courtesy Heidi Bechtold)

Bechtold: Animals looking for nectar. This is usually the flowering season, and there's none in the area. They eat the juice of the fruit. You put some whole pieces, and you cut up small pieces because some of the young baby ones don't have strong enough teeth to bite through skin.

Pattison: And then we were putting out water stations for wallabies, kangaroos, possums. Then we were called in to do a grid search. It was very, very windy, and the grid search had to be altered significantly, so we weren't right in the forest, per se, because the winds were probably kicking up at about 70 to 80 kilometres an hour.

It was 40 degrees. Your sweat wouldn't even drip off your body, just evaporated in the air so quickly from the wind.

From there, we came across, how would you describe it? Like the earth was broken. It was like mother nature's holocaust. The amount of animals that … oh, God.

So, anyhow, we spotted a kangaroo in the middle of this charred earth. And we were able to get an Australasian darter [a large bird] and the kangaroo. When they showed up, we were all being evacuated from where we were because there were fires from the south, fires from the north, moving toward us. The closest fire was 3.2 kilometres away and moving rapidly. So, from that point on, we had to do a drone search, which was the first drone search that was conducted, and our Canadian team led that.

What are you seeing — a totally burnt landscape?

Bechtold: They're very just black. The trees — trees falling down, trees broken, no vegetation on the ground. There definitely are some areas that now have started to sprout a little bit of green, which is a really good sign. But it's still not enough.

We've talked to many locals who have said that a lot of these areas used to be thousands of animals. Now it's just like a dead zone. It's quiet, eerie; it's silent. You don't even see a bug crawling.

And lots of homes. We've actually walked through some property, houses that are burnt to the ground, and talked to owners. One family, they're living in a shed because their house burned down, and they don't want to leave their property. The whole area has been evacuated three times.

What does it smell like?

Bechtold: When you're in an area that is especially burnt, there's definitely smells of decay and burnt and then dead bodies. And, then, when you're in an area like we were, where there was high winds and smoke, it was almost very difficult to breathe. We have masks, and they've been helpful. It's hazy; it's dark.

In January, we started to hear news reports that rains were starting. Did the rains make a difference?

Bechtold: That's the thing — it's such a large country. There are areas that have rain, but the problem is the rain was so harsh and so strong that it caused flash flooding. And, actually, it wasn't enough to do a whole bunch.

Are there signs of hope?

Bechtold: We're currently working with this group in new South Wales — they basically have come together with vets and a group from New Zealand, and then we've come in, and they're kind of patrolling this whole area. They're bringing in injured kangaroos and wallabies and treating them and caring for them.

When we check in at headquarters, there's, you know, 10 little baby kangaroos running around that are all bandaged up. It's just amazing to see all these people working together to try to save anything they can.

And putting up food feed stations and then seeing that some of it has been eaten or some of it's been drunk. You know that we're helping animals that are, you know, ever so starving.

How long will you be there for?

Bechtold: Three weeks or longer — whatever we're needed for.

What has surprised you most about this experience?

Bechtold: The global news, what you've seen on your end, there is devastation, right? And they said Australia is burning down. A lot of locals here are concerned about that [reportage] because it's stopping tourism.

A lot of the main cities are completely fine, and they're actually encouraging people to come out and help support the economy because fires have destroyed their busy season. This is their summer, right? This is their travel time. This is when people are off school.

That's kind of surprised me — that it's more like economic and home issues. Yesterday, we went to a community centre to see if anyone needed help with wildlife. And the whole community centre is filled with people dropping off donations for people that have lost their homes and lost their livelihoods from these fires. While we were standing there, a lady walked in, and some gentleman introduced her to the coordinator, and [she] just broke down and started crying.

Obviously, the animals — that's what we're here for. But you're seeing so much more to it. There's so much more going on.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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