A rescue team of theme park staff was able to save 23 horses from perishing in devastating floodwaters, writes Sue Arnold.
TOO MANY heart-wrenching stories of lost, drowned animals during the catastrophic floods have left a heavy veil of sadness.
But there were also amazing tales of incredible rescues, efforts by people who braved the odds, risking their own lives to save animals.
Heidi Mackay, Outback’s equine manager, spoke exclusively to Independent Australia about the daring effort:
‘Our company got a call for help from the Ballina owners of 23 horses stranded in floodwaters. The owners simply didn’t have the manpower to get the horses out.
People had tried to walk the horses out but as soon as they got to safety, the horses went back into the water. They’re herd animals and they wanted to be together.’
The animals had been in the floodwaters for three days without food or water. They literally couldn’t move with water up to their shoulders even at low tide. Some had cuts from going through fences, others had badly swollen legs.
‘There was no way they would have made another 24 hours.’
Heidi made the call for volunteers from the Outback staff. Everyone put their hand up, but the two helicopters which SeaWorld made available could only take a maximum of eight people and an equine vet.
First off, it was critical to do a recon of the situation and assess whether the team could actually pull off a rescue. Once the decision to act was made, the helicopter went back to SeaWorld, filled up with fuel and both choppers flew off with the rescue team on a 40-minute flight to Ballina.
‘The pilots told us we had one hour before we had to get out of there. They had to get back to base before dark and we had to wait until low tide which fortunately was due late in the afternoon.’
Once the choppers landed, the team made its way to the floodwaters. Locals assisted with boats and jet skis to carry the necessary rescue equipment to the property where the horses were stranded.
Arriving at the scene, the team ploughed into the floodwaters.
Wading through the water was terrifying, as Heidi recalls:
All I could think of were snakes. We had to go into cane fields and snakes were our greatest concern. I just had to try and put it out of my head.
When we reached the horses, none of them wanted to move. We had to make every single one of them walk. The majority almost fell over taking their first step, their legs were so swollen. Many had cuts from going through fences.
Our vet medicated those that needed help. Then we had to go across an area where the horses would have to swim at least 30 metres and we had to walk 1 kilometre in the water to get to that area.
There was no lead horse. We had to take almost every one by halter; only a few just followed.
Heidi was one of the last of the team to leave the water once most horses had reached higher ground and were safe. But two very old horses remained and Heidi was doing her best to get them out.
‘I didn’t want any staff member to have to watch if we had to let the horses go. The current had picked up and the vet and I were worried they would be swept away. I was getting depressed and prepared to have to give up, but thankfully, they both finally made it.’
Prior to the actual rescue, the team had a major discussion about what to wear in the floodwaters. Shoes were a major topic.
‘We thought we’d be in 80 centimetres of water. Some took gumboots; one of my staff lost hers within the first 10 metres. I wore ankle boots because I thought even if they got wet, I wouldn’t lose them.’
The team were soaked up to their necks. By the time the rescue was over (remembering they only had one hour to do the job), they were all freezing cold and exhausted.
We all felt guilty leaving the owners behind. They had to deal with the ongoing flood and all the loss and misery. They were so grateful and thankful for our rescue. All they cared about was rescuing the horses.
I remember one of the owners said to me, “Now the horses are okay, we can think about us”.
I don’t think the general public who haven’t been involved in something like this can understand how horrific this kind of disaster really is. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But even a little bit of help can make things so much better.
Aside from the adrenalin rush of saving the horses, the emotional floodgates opened the next day. One staff member was so moved, she’s gone back to Ballina every week to help.
We’d read all the news stories about so many horses dying. Horrific stories. We were lucky enough to have the people and the resources.
I’ve worked for Village Roadshow for 28 years and I’m super proud of the company for funding us to do the rescue and especially proud of the amazing staff who volunteered.
The local community was incredible. It was an amazing experience we will all never forget.
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