When Kiwi firefighters are called out to help with animal-related calls, they might expect to come away with a cat bite or a pulled muscle.

But one unlucky victim contracted a potentially life-threatening disease, leading to him being quarantined in hospital.

READ MORE: Emus, horses, and grumpy cats contribute to firefighter injuries

The incident is one of a dozen injuries and illnesses suffered by Fire and Emergency NZ (Fenz) staff during animal rescues and callouts in the last two years.


During 2018 and 2019, firefighters were called to 846 animal rescue incidents across New Zealand, according to documents provided to the Herald. More than a quarter of the callouts were in the Auckland region.

The majority of these rescues were for cats and the second most for dogs, but the rescues spanned a number of species including whales, possums, penguins and donkeys.

Incident reports for these types of rescues reveal firefighters were sometimes at risk of suffering puncture wounds or strains while trying to rescue ungrateful pets.

But the worst incident came after the Pigeon Valley fires in Nelson, when a Fenz safety supervisor was assisting the Ministry for Primary Industries in assessing, rescuing and feeding sheep and other animals left on properties in the fire zone.

The Pigeon Valley blaze was New Zealand's largest wildfire in 70 years, burning across 35km, destroying or damaging 2300ha of pine forest, razing a three-bedroom home and sparking the evacuation of 2500 people.

On February 6, a day after the fire started, the staff member was tasked with helping manage re-entry of teams into the Redwood Valley area to check on animal welfare and properties in the incident cordon.

During the next several days, he helped move animals, lift a calf out of a bog, and at one point cut his wrist.

Some days later, he began feeling unwell and was admitted to hospital with leptospirosis, a disease normally associated with cattle.


Also known as the dairy-farm fever, leptospirosis is a potentially fatal disease that can cause flu-like symptoms and, in severe cases, bleeding from the lungs, meningitis or multiple organ failure.

According to the Fenz incident report, the staff member had to spend four days in hospital, initially in quarantine and on IV antibiotics after contracting the disease.

An investigation into the incident found staff were unaware of the risk of contracting leptospirosis during the work with the animals, meaning no precautions were taken to control the risk.

It also found staff were still put at risk after the man's admission to hospital, as the incident wasn't entered into a health and safety system until several months later. This meant the risk went uncontrolled for the remainder of the work.

Recommendations over the incident include familiarising staff with the need for correct hygiene and protective equipment when dealing with animals, reminding staff all incidents of harm or potential harm need to be logged as soon as practicable, and developing an MOU with MPI to better understand procedures and controls while working around animals.

The incident was reported to WorkSafe.

Other injuries suffered by firefighters included one person being bitten on the face while rescuing a nervous dog from a cliff, another straining a muscle while freeing a cat from between fence palings, and another person getting stabbed in the hand through their glove by a palm frond during a rescue.

Several reported being bitten by dogs and cats.