The saga of a stranded horse becomes a symbol of hope amid climate catastrophe in Brazil

Live helicopter footage on TV caught a stranded horse trying to escape the floods in Brazil. Image by Globonews, edited by Global Voices.

Footage taken by a helicopter camera was being broadcast live on Brazilian TV, capturing a flooded neighborhood in the city of Canoas, when it caught a stranded horse standing on a rooftop — the only visible part of the building above the water. Estimating the building's height, the height of the tree to the right, or the depth beneath the surface was challenging just by looking. During the brief time he was filmed, the horse stood still — fragile, exhausted, yet resilient.

Canoas is located in the metropolitan area of Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul’s capital. It’s one of the most severely affected cities in a state that registered 469 out of 497 cities affected by May 24. There, the floods that took down towns in a domino effect since the last days of April, hit harder on May 4. The climate catastrophe left at least 163 people dead, 63 missing, 581.638 displaced and 2.3 million affected.

On May 8, at 10.35 a.m., when the camera filmed the horse, he was likely on his fourth day standing up on the building, without food or water; he was barely moving, trying to keep his balance. The state had just registered 100 people dead in the floods. Some towns were scrapped off the map, while others were still under water, making it harder to calculate the damages.

Saving the horse quickly became a crucial mission, sparking a national cry for help on social media and rallying thousands to join in. An influencer tried to share ideas for rescuing heavy animals during floods, while others searched for financial support to rent a helicopter.

I'm really touched, this horse is a real symbol of resistance, fighting for his life being paralyzed for five days, scared, hungry and thirsty. It's cruel and inhumane, HE NEEDS TO BE RESCUED! #SaveCanoasHorse

But for the people of Rio Grande do Sul there was another layer. The southernmost state of Brazil shares borders with Argentina and Uruguay, as well as the habit of drinking mate/chimarrão, traditions rooted in the bond with the land, rural work, and horses.

The region even has its own breed, the Crioulo or Criollo, the horse of the pampas, originated from Andalusian and Berber horses, which were introduced by Spaniards in South America. It’s hard to depict or find a folklore image of gaúchos without a horse at their side.

Before the current climate catastrophe, which had expanded to other cities after the beginning of May, the region had 10 episodes of extreme rains, according to Rodrigo Manzione, an expert from Unesp (São Paulo's state university). In 2023 alone, 80 people died in the state because of flooding. Some of the cities severely hit this time were in the process of recovering after the destruction last September.

Despite the number of dead, the May 2024 catastrophe in Rio Grande do Sul already surpasses the number of deaths from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, United States, in 2005. While Katrina reached an area of 2,400 kilometers (1,491 miles), in Rio Grande do Sul, floods affected 3,800 kilometers (2,362 miles). Also, while New Orleans registered around 400,000 people displaced, the Brazilian state already has over 500,000.

FLOODING | Catastrophic flooding swept a Rio Grande do Sul city out of the map. In 30 years covering the state's meteorology, we've never seen such devastation. Part of the city was obliterated, as if by a tornado or a Category 5 hurricane.

While the news reported about collapses, other cities being hit, maintenance errors and legislation that might have added to the crisis, focusing on the horse that was still resisting and on the people trying to get aid, worked as a sort of beam of hope in a dark hour.

The horse was also one of the 11,000 animals rescued so far from the flooded houses by volunteers and public security forces. Dogs, cats and other animals resisted for days, sometimes in the water, until they got help. In the buildings around the stranded horse filmed on TV, dogs were seen on roofs nearby.

For the color of his coat, the horse was nicknamed “Caramel,” a term Brazilians usually reserve to tenderly call a very common type of stray dog that can be found everywhere in the country. According to a list of horses’ coat colors, however, the correct term would be, perhaps, ”toasted” (tostado).

On May 9, fearing he wouldn't hold on much longer and knowing the message his survival could pass at the moment, nine firefighters and six veterinarians managed to rescue him using a boat and brought him to a facility at Ulbra university.

Even President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva mentioned Caramel's case during an event:

Eu fui dormir inquieto com a imagem de um cavalo em cima de um telhado. Eu fico imaginando se aquele cavalo pensasse, como a gente imagina que são os pensamentos, o que aquele cavalo estava pensando. Sozinho, em cima de um telhado, não sei como a telha de brasilit não quebrou, e hoje fiquei sabendo que conseguiram salvar o cavalo.

I went to sleep restless with the image of a horse on the top of a roof. I keep imagining if that horse could think, the way we imagine thoughts to be, what is that horse thinking? Alone, on the top of a roof, I don't know how the tiles didn't break, and today I've learned he was rescued.

Experts at the university examined the horse and said he was likely used to pull carts. They say he wasn't in good shape even before the floods and is under care now.

It's not only his health state, but also Caramel's apetite, that is getting better! Under supervision at the Veterinarian Hospital at Ulbra, the horse doesn't require any types of treatment any more. Now, he only needs to gain weight (and is doing great!)

Caramel's situation called attention to numerous horses that were still waiting for rescue and struggling to survive in the middle of flooded areas all over the state. On May 14, firefighters managed to rescue a mare that stayed on the third floor of an apartment building for 10 days, in São Leopoldo, a city that was also heavily affected.

A group of volunteers dedicated days to searching flooded areas for animals left behind. With temperatures decreasing in the region, their chances of survival were at risk. The animals are being taken to shelters where owners can find them or they can be put up for adoption afterwards.

He was barely holding on…
He passed 12 days like this, on a wall, needing help and very tired.
He was rescued, and is safe now.

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