Fears over cuts to fire service as £2m is spent on animal rescues
The fire service has spent more than £2m rescuing animals in the past three years.
Crews responded to incidents involving livestock, pets, ducklings, a monkey and more.
Firefighters carried out 653 rescues between 2013 and 2015 - an average of four a week - at a cost of £2,086,555.
In some cases, they were called out to incidents where the animal managed to free themselves.
Earlier this month, concerns were raised about staffing levels at fire stations.
SDLP MLA John Dallat warned the high number of animal rescues were adding to the fire service's workload.
"Firefighters have been demonstrating about cuts to their budget, and this kind of expenditure needs to be looked at again," he said.
"There may be alternatives, and it may be that animal rescue is the responsibility of someone else."
Details of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service's (NIFRS) animal rescues were disclosed following a Freedom of Information request.
Firefighters responded to 187 incidents up to November 25 2015, costing £632,362.
A further 224 rescues were carried out in 2014 at a cost of £712,508. And in 2013 some £741,685 was spent responding to 242 incidents.
In some cases the animals managed to free themselves after crews were dispatched at huge expense.
Almost £3,000 was spent sending firefighters to an incident in Londonderry where a cat was stuck on a roof. However, when crews arrived the cat ran away.
A report of a second incident in Derry, which cost £5,025, describes how the cat "self-rescued".
Five ducklings stuck in a grille in Belfast also managed to free themselves despite fire crews attending the scene.
Sometimes it just took a little persuasion. Firefighters responding to an incident in Ballymena coaxed a cat out of a cavity wall using cat food.
Earlier this month, Ukip councillor Noel Jordan, a retained firefighter, claimed Carrickfergus was left without sufficient firefighter cover because of under-staffing.
And Mr Dallat, who sits on the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee, said he was aware of an incident where eight appliances were sent from various stations to rescue an animal in distress.
"If the fire service has to make choices, the first priority has to be human life," he said.
"That is not to suggest animals should not be rescued, but there are insurance companies and other options.
"There is, of course, an onus on farmers and owners to make sure their animals are protected and don't get into situations where they need rescued."
Cats and dogs accounted for the majority of rescues.
However, other more unusual incidents involved starlings, guinea pigs and hamsters.
A squirrel was rescued in Magherafelt, and crews released a seagull that was trapped in a cable in Portrush.
The NIFRS said it did not recover any costs for crews attending animal rescues.
A spokesman added: "Although animal rescues represent a very small proportion of all the emergency incidents we attend, as an emergency service we take this role very seriously.
"Animals, especially large animals in distress, can pose a serious risk to the public or anyone attempting to rescue them.
"For NIFRS, public safety and protecting the community is our number one priority."
The fire service has two specialised animal rescue teams which attend incidents involving large animals.
These are based in Omagh and Newcastle but work across Northern Ireland.
They respond to incidents involving large animal rescues, such as cows or horses, and have been equipped with specialist skills and rescue equipment for such rescues.
The NIFRS spokesman added: "When a rescue of a large animal is required, fire crews never underestimate the unpredictable behaviour of the extremely heavy and strong animals enduring a stressful situation.
"Firefighters who are highly trained in large animal rescue techniques can help reduce the likelihood of injuries and deaths to farmers and their families and anyone else who may attempt to carry out a rescue themselves.
"It is strongly advised to never attempt to rescue any livestock yourself, as such action would compromise safety."