The Unbreakable Bond - How Fort McMurray’s Pets Survived a Natural Disaster
There is a scene in the 1956 Hollywood blockbuster “The Ten Commandments” that is virtually unforgettable. As the Israelites flee the tyranny of the Egyptians, they take with them not only their children and possessions, but a variety of animals of every species. With goats and oxen and sheep, they make their exodus. In a strangely similar manner, on May 3rd, the residents of the Wood Buffalo region found themselves fleeing their communities, except in this case to escape the approaching flames of a wildfire. Similar to the Israelites, however, they took their animals with them – a lot of animals.
Just as the human residents of the Wood Buffalo region fled, so too did a variety of furry, scaly and spiny creatures. Some left town in cars, on planes, and, in some cases, by foot.
Cora Dion found herself in a predicament when what she thought would be a couple of days of keeping her four horses in her backyard in downtown Fort McMurray after the evacuation of the Clearwater Horse Club became a far more dire situation. Dion had moved the horses into her backyard on May 1st, after the fire began to threaten the horse club property. On May 3rd, when Dion began to hear explosions around 2:30pm she realized the fire was moving into the city, and she and her twin daughters took action.
The challenge for Dion, however, was having four horses to move and only a two-horse trailer. Initially Dion and her daughters loaded two of the horses and walked the two others to MacDonald Island Park, where they hoped they could remain safe. Shortly after their arrival, it became clear the entire community was under significant threat from the fire.
“We loaded up two horses,” says Dion. “The girls hopped on the other two to ride behind the trailer; and then, with two horses loaded, two horses following, three dogs and one cat in the truck, we headed north.”
Horses can be nervous animals, and Dion worried for the safety of both the horses walking behind the trailer and her daughters riding them. The intense traffic and the wildfire both posed significant risks in terms of spooking the horses, but Dion says her daughters and the horses handled it all beautifully. “We made it as far as Lafarge, where they had set up some space for the horses as other members of the horse club had arrived there as well. We spent May 3rd there, and the next day we determined we needed to head south. Complete strangers with empty horse trailers had headed to Fort McMurray, but they were not allowed to travel through the city – so we had to get to them to safety.”
And that is what Dion and her daughters did. They loaded two horses, while another horse club member took the other two and trailered them through the city. At around 4pm on May 4th, a guardian angel (and complete stranger) with a four-horse trailer appeared from southern Alberta. The horses, Dion, her daughters and the other animals were finally on their way to safety. “My daughters would have never left their horses,” says Dion. “Some might have suggested we let them go and get ourselves out, but we were getting out together.”
Others who headed north found themselves facing similar challenges. Leslie Ross, who headed north to one of the many camps offering refuge for evacuees, found herself flying out with her pets. “When we first evacuated, we went to Syncrude’s base plant. It took me eight hours to get there and all of us were dead tired. We were there from May 2nd until May 4th.” On May 4th, Ross, along with her two dogs and cat were flown to safety, although it was not uneventful.
“With help we got on the plane - the flight attendants were very helpful and put us in the front so my guys could have room. So I am on a plane with the cat in her crate strapped into the seat with the seatbelt, Millie my Shih Tzu on my lap and Monty my terrier on the seat beside me. They both looked really scared and I think I did too. None of the animals had ever flown before. Then the engine started and Millie got concerned and tried to crawl into my top, at the same time Monty thought it would be safer to head for higher ground so he started to climb up me. [I finally] got Monty down and Millie out of my bra, and then the plane started to go down the runway. Monty didn’t like this really fast weird car and then tried to crawl inside my body. Next thing I know he is body slamming me in the face and my glasses go flying. I had also left my hearing aids in my bag so now I am blind and deaf for the flight,” says Ross of an unexpected adventure that ended with glasses mended with packing tape and a brief stay at the evacuation centre at Northlands, before heading to Comox, B.C. to be with family.
For some community residents, evacuation involved several logistical challenges when it came to ensuring their animals reached safety, particularly when large numbers of animals were involved. Christina Traverse, the dog sledder of Mush McMurray fame, evacuated with her entire team.
“When it came to the fire I listened to my gut instincts,” says Traverse of the May 3rd evacuation. She had already evacuated her team from her dog lot to the safety of MacDonald Island Park during the first round of evacuation notices on May 1st. “As soon as I saw the smoke I started cleaning and getting things ready to go, just in case. By the time I had the dogs almost ready to load, we got our voluntary evacuation notice. By the time I had them loaded it was mandatory. I don’t even want to know what would have happened if I had waited. I also had a large support group to help me out; there is no way I would have been able to do this on my own!”
“During the evacuation we faced a number of challenges. Loading the dogs and whatever else we could take took a lot of time and luckily I had a group of people helping,” says Traverse. When Traverse realized her dog lot had been damaged in the fire, she faced another challenge: finding the dogs temporary accommodations. “Finding suitable accommodations for them was a tough one. Ideally I would have liked the dogs to stay with me, however finding land and setting up a temporary dog yard was very difficult. So I had to split up the pack and send them to wonderful mushers in Alberta and B.C., where the dogs could get back into a normal routine. That was the hardest part for me, but I knew it was the best decision for the well-being of the dogs until I can get my dog lot back in shape.” Traverse and her many supporters are now working to remedy the fire-related damage to her dog lot so she can bring her dogs home as soon as possible.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges and largest worries was the pets who were left behind. Not by choice, but because owners were forced to evacuate quickly given the rapid spread of the fire and the sheer intensity of the flames.
Now famous around the world, one lucky cat took refuge in a stove and was found by a first responder going through the rubble of a burned out house. “Stove Cat”, a black and white domestic short hair also known as “Tux”, became an internet sensation when photos of firefighters bandaging his burned paws went viral. Tux was reunited with his owners and is one of thousands of animals who now have a remarkable story of survival.
The Fort McMurray SPCA, well known in the region for their animal advocacy, stepped forward in the early days to participate in what may well be the largest animal rescue in Canadian history. On Friday May 6th, just days after losing her own home in the fire in Abasand, SPCA Executive Director Tara Clarke, two members of the board of directors of the SPCA and a couple of volunteers re-entered Fort McMurray, having been granted a 96-hour period in which to effect animal rescues and bring as many pets as possible to safety.
From the SPCA building in Gregoire without water and electricity, this small group worked with others to organize the rescue of hundreds of animals that owners had been forced to leave behind, from geckos to dogs. Says Clarke of the experience: “After just a few hours of sleep to see the board members and two volunteers – who made the first trip with me – crawl out of their vehicles on those smoky mornings, stretch their sore muscles and turn one to another to wish each other good morning, before walking into the shelter at 6 a.m. to get started on what would be another 20-hour day, was inspiring. I am still in awe of their community spirit and dedication to our organization. Thanks fail to recognize their efforts and selflessness, not just during the rescue, but throughout the entire evacuation. Seeing pets brought to the shelter wide eyed, scared, not understanding what was happening hour after hour was overwhelming at some points. But knowing that as a collective rescue effort, so many were found, so many were safe – that those worried calls, emails and social media messages could have happy endings, that kept us all going. Working for those moments of reunification propelled and sustained us.”
During the Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016, the animals of the community faced tremendous threat to their survival. These stories are only a few of the thousands, each and every one involving a creature unable to fend for itself and trusting their safety to others. They were driven out, flown out, walked out, and carried out during a time of devastation and fear. The most vulnerable in our community were attended to by loving owners, complete strangers, and animal rescue volunteers from across the country, and not forgetting the kind, exhausted first responders. It is perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the love we have for our animal companions, and to a bond that is so strong not even the hottest flames can break.