Thousands of Animals Rescued from Earthquake Devastation in Ecuador

Photojournalist John Keeble reports from Ecuador about the thousands of animals that needed rescuing after the April 2016 earthquake


On April 16 [2016] Ecuador was hit by a powerful earthquake. The 7.8 magnitude quake turned the costal Tarqui area from a bustling beach town into little more than rubble.


Destruction spread far and wide: leaving 654 people dead and 16,600 injured. More than 26,000 were rendered homeless. The financial cost of the damage is estimated to be between $2 and $3 billion.  


And the consequences of this natural disaster go beyond humans: thousands of cats, dogs and farm animals have also been affected. Injured and alone, separated from their families, suffering from malnutrition and dehydration, these animals need help.


Photojournalist John Keeble is currently in the area documenting the devastation and, importantly, the intensive rescue work being carried out to help the animal victims of this natural disaster. A number of organisations have been working in the affected areas to rescue, rehabilitate and rehome.   John shares his first person account.


ecuador earthquake animals rescued


A thin straggle of people, bright yellow jackets and hard hats, keep to the road centre are they search in the desolate wasteland of Ground Zero, the earthquake-devastated Tarqui area on the coast of Ecuador.


Their eyes and ears are everywhere in this sealed-off zone guarded by police and armed soldiers. They are an animal rescue team searching for the forgotten lives in the ruins-the dogs and cats left behind when the human victims and survivors were taken out.


The streets of shattered homes and businesses are too much for the team to search together. Half, led by Arca Foundation president Valentina León, go on; and the rest, led by veterinary professor Cristina Bernardi, turn off to search other streets. The smell in the air makes everyone keep their mouth and nose masks securely in place.


Valentina León’s group calls into wrecked buildings, scanning the rubble for any sign of life. Nothing but the deadness of the destroyed. Suddenly another group-local people who have joined forces with the Arca team to distribute animal food-come up from the sea-end of Ground Zero. They have found a dog, thin, confused, but otherwise in good shape. A vet examines her, then she is taken out to safety.


ecuador earthquake animals rescued


The Arca group pushes on. They come upon a dozen men in protection gear that makes the rescue team’s precautions look flimsy in the extreme. The men are clearing hazardous building materials exposed by the earthquake’s violence.


This is another reminder of time running out for anything alive in the rubble: the whole area is scheduled to be cleared with heavy machinery and animals hiding in their once-safe and loving homes are unlikely to be seen and saved.


The team questions the workmen like they question everyone, everywhere … it is always the local people who know of animals hiding away or in need. Then the team moves on.


From high above, in a wreck that was once a home, there is a plaintive cry of a cat. At first it is hard to pinpoint the exact location. A young vet, Belén Andrade, ventures into the dangerously smashed building. Someone has been leaving food and water for the cat. Belén stands at the bottom of stairs leading to the first floor and patiently calls down the cat, stroking him, giving him confidence. She carefully carries him out, puts him into gentle waiting hands-but he panics and erupts into a fighting frenzy, and escapes back into the house.


While others move on to check more buildings, Valentina León still has hopes of saving the cat. She does what is, for most people, the unthinkable: she climbs the stairs into the unstable chaos of the room above. But the cat has retreated even higher, out of reach, and he watches her, alert for any new attempt to catch him.


Later, when he has calmed down, Cristina Bernardi returns and coaxes him to her on the stairs. She spends a long time stroking and talking to him, and finally eases him into a cat transport box.


ecuador earthquake animals rescued


A second cat is enticed into friendly care, only to fight free again and escape in a flurry of claws and blood. “She is pregnant,” says Cristina Bernardi. “I really want to save her and her kittens. We will try to get back here before we return to our home base at Cuenca.”


Eventually the search is completed, the animals added to those found earlier around the outside of the closed area.


In that open area of Tarqui, where people have refused to leave, a local woman, Lorena, and her young daughter showed the team where animals needed help. There were puppies, kittens, a cat with the fur ripped off his back in the earthquake, an abandoned young dog. Lorena took in one of the kittens to join her family of children and dogs. Many dogs and cats were treated, vaccinated, wormed, protected against fleas, and bags of food were given out.


Another side of the team’s work hit everyone hard. There were seven dogs with advanced distemper. They were dying and the team ended their suffering amid tears from their owners and team members alike.


Most of that work fell to Belén Andrade, a final year student about to qualify as a vet. She said after putting down six of them: “It is very upsetting. I feel very sad but we have to stop them suffering.”


Cristina Bernardi, the Italian lead vet who was with another group when the distemper dogs were found, said later: “We are concerned about the dogs in that area but I don’t think distemper is a big problem in the wider area of the earthquake.”


The Arca team-one of about six veterinarian teams working in the earthquake areas along the coast-spent four days in and around Manta. They treated more than 300 dogs and cats as well as distributing large amounts of dry animal food,


The Tarqui rescued dogs and cats were taken to the Manta veterinary practice of Bairon Zambrano Farias, who helped the team and provided a base and somewhere for the team to sleep. The animals were treated, cleaned, fed and given the care and affection they desperately needed after the trauma of the earthquake and then finding themselves alone in a hostile world.


ecuador earthquake animals rescued


Two days later they arrived with the team in Cuenca, 400km away, where Arca is based-and the start of their new lives.


The stories of the cats in Ground Zero had happy endings. Cristina Bernardi talked her way back in to Ground Zero for another attempt to rescue the pregnant cat and found that her owner had returned and taken her to safety-and Valentina León fell in love with the rescued cat, named him Filipo, and gave him a home with her.


Now the Arca team is back in the earthquake area continuing its dedicated work to save the animals and help their owners.



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