Five-year-old mutt Chico is a well-adjusted and adventurous dog, spending his days chasing birds and hauling sticks. But come New Year’s Eve, when the Dutch go gaga for fireworks, he’s a wreck.
“It’s hell for him, he’s just terrified,” says co-owner Aleksandar Petrovic. “He runs around and tries to hide. I try to walk him in a quiet place before the hell starts. And then I wait until 4 or 5am to walk him again when it’s a little quieter. Maybe if you’re lucky, it’s quiet at 6am. But he’s still terrified, and he’s traumatized for a couple of days after that.
Jaap de Jong starts his dog Mira on the anti-seizure medication Pexion as early as December 10 to try and calm her down ahead of the big night. “She shakes and pants profusely and tries to crawl into the furthest corners and under the sofa,” says Groninger de Jong. “She cannot be calmed down, she’s in an enormous panic. She was so scared, we thought she was dying.”
Unfortunately, Chico and Mira are far from the exceptions. Countless of dogs, cats, birds and even wild animals get so distressed by the fireworks, that the country’s veterinarians are busy for much of a season that is usually, at least for humans, a time of celebration and goodwill.
“About 50 to 70% of dogs are in one way or another afraid, especially newly popular breeds like Labradoodles and Frisian Stabij,” says veterinarian Alix van Zijl. “Some are just nervous, others completely freak out. We see way too many cases, and it’s getting worse. This is not a good season.”
She cites dogs who refuse to go outside, holding in their urine and faeces instead. Some become unresponsive to their owners and just “hide, hide, hide. It’s that bad,” says Van Zijl.
Fear on film
Filmmaker Sebastian Mulder was housebound one Covid New Year’s Eve and noticed his cat was afraid of the fireworks. “I was ashamed that I never realised,” he says, “but I thought it could be an interesting subject to explore.”
After he was inundated with responses to a Facebook query by other people whose animals were also terrified, he decided to make a film about it, fitting dogs with GoPro cameras to see life from a canine perspective.
“I wasn’t aware it was such a big problem,” says Mulder, whose resulting short film, And a Happy New Year, set out to find out how it feels to be an animal on New Year’s Eve.
“The film is an exercise in empathy with another creature,” he says. “New Years is a day of celebrating life, but we use fireworks that harm so many creatures, including humans. It’s not for this time anymore.”
In addition to dogs panting in terror and owners who try to calm their canines by putting them in bathrooms with no windows, Mulder’s film also shows disturbing images of petrified birds in their habitats or taking flight when hearing fireworks.
“There wasn’t a lot of research when I started, but research now shows that all birds in the Netherlands are affected by fireworks,” he says. “And for animals with diseases, like epilepsy, the stress of the fireworks can trigger an attack. It made me cry inside when I realized. It’s so sad.”
Despite perennial talk of a national fireworks ban and an actual ban in effect in some municipalities, including Amsterdam, the fireworks frenzy continues, with AD reporting that some shops are already selling more fireworks this year than last.
“The Dutch have one of the biggest fireworks cultures, and it’s way longer than just New Year’s Eve,” says Mulder. “One dog owner told me it’s very hard because the fireworks begin a month before, so you can’t just prepare your pet for one day such as New Year’s Eve.”
Mulder thinks a fireworks ban is currently unrealistic and unenforceable, but he does hope his film moves the “polarizing” discussion forward.
“I hope viewers see it’s a problem that must change,” says Mulder. “When we were making the film, everyone thought the ban on selling fireworks during corona would see the practice dying out. It’s changing slowly, but we’re not there yet. And we’re getting a very right-wing government, so we won’t get there next year!”
Instead, he’s hoping his purposefully confrontational film will change people’s point of view. And to do that, he says, you have to get them while they’re young.
“When we first screened the film at IDFA [International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam] last month, children ages 9 to 12 loved it. But by 14-years-old, the response was very different. Boys were laughing. It’s effective to show it at a younger age.”
To that end, schools can download the film for free, as some 150 have already done. Perhaps not surprisingly, And a Happy New Year won IDFA’s 2023 Best youth documentary for 9–12-year-olds.
Dutch viewers can watch the documentary for free on 2doc.nl from Friday.
In the meantime, there are some tips to help nervous dogs make it through New Year’s Eve and safely into 2024.
Mulder suggests playing music to counter outside noise, playing games as a distraction and even medication and thunder shirts.
Veterinarian van Zijl recommends trying natural calming supplements such as Zylkene, although she says it’s not a miracle medicine. Nothing, she says, works extremely well, but she advises closing the windows and curtains, staying home, playing the radio and just being there for support.
“Don’t overdo it, don’t encourage them that it’s okay to be afraid,” she cautions. “But if your dog is afraid, you should be there for support. If your dog wants to sleep in the bed, it’s okay for one night. Our dogs slept in our bed last year!”
She says although Pexion is a heavy drug, it has been proven to reduce the fear of loud noises and she prescribes it often, usually starting a week before New Year’s Eve.
“The edges are off, but it’s important to start it early enough,” she says. “We give out some low-dose sedatives as early as November. But for dogs that are completely freaked out, nothing works. I advise their owners to go hide in the middle of nowhere. It’s probably the best option, although you have to book a year in advance!”
Marion Sarrio, a spokesperson for Center Parcs, says their vacation villages are “fireworks-free for the New Year, so pets will be able to enjoy their stay in peace.”
As for Petrovic, he tries talking to Chico to ease his terror. “It doesn’t really work, but it calms him down a bit,” he says. “I won’t go to clubs or parties where I can’t bring him. There should be a fireworks ban, and not just for dogs. For older people and other animals, it’s just terrible.”
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