Laura Gislason and her boyfriend Kyle Benio escaped the Fort McMurray wildfires with just the clothes on their backs.
Now safe with relatives in Edmonton, her thoughts centre on the dog and cat they were forced to leave behind: a 16-year-old bichon-Shih Tzu named Gabi and Pastel, a five-year-old calico.
“There should be food or water for them to get to for a few days, at least, but I don’t know,” frets Gislason.
“I hope that they just thought that we will be coming back soon and had a nap or something.”
Watch below: Community groups in Edmonton are banding together to help owners reunite with lost pets
A day after raging wildfires forced residents to flee the Alberta city, Gislason was among several pet owners frantic to get information on how they could retrieve animals left behind.
Many desperate residents took to Facebook to plead for help: “We had to turn my three horses loose. If anyone sees or hears of them please contact me,” writes Megan Bastien.
“Two small dogs are locked in a house downtown right now…. Can anyone help? She has tried all the provided numbers to no avail,” says Natalie Lynn on behalf of a pet owner.
Animal rescue agencies expressed similar frustrations at being unable to do anything while an evacuation order is in place.
“It’s nonstop. We’re more so just getting desperate pleas from people to go into Fort Mac and get their animals, which is not something we can do. I mean the police are on every corner stopping people from doing that,” says Melissa Foley of Farm Animal Rescue & Rehoming Movement.
Foley says she expected to receive 17 pigs that have been temporarily housed in someone’s yard outside the community. She says countless dogs, cats, horses, pigs and other critters have been abandoned amid the chaos for all sorts of reasons.
“A lot of people are, say, stuck at Edmonton airport, they were supposed to be coming home, their dogs are there or they’re going out of town and people were supposed to be watching their animals and then decided just to take off and leave the animals in the home,” she says.
Others were at work when they were told to leave town and simply couldn’t retrieve their furry friends.
That was the case with Gislason, who says she was downtown when she learned of the order to evacuate. By the time she and her boyfriend jumped in the car to head home, their street was blocked. All they could do was drive south to relatives in Edmonton without the dog and cat.
Deanna Thompson, executive director of the Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society, says local authorities don’t seem to have a formal plan to help stranded animals.
Her group started a Facebook page to share information, and has seen hundreds of individuals offer a safe haven to pets and livestock.
“It’s been amazing the number of businesses, kennels, dog food companies, rescue organizations, humane societies that have all stepped up and offered assistance,” she says.
“We’ve got crews on standby. We’ve got lots of people willing to help out and we’ll just continue to try and get some more information.”
Foley is in Wetaskiwin, Alta., about a five-hour drive from Fort McMurray, but says she plans to head as close to the oilsands community as possible with trailers and trucks. Her goal is to establish a meeting place where people can bring animals to get food and water and to get them moving out of the area.
Dog owner Chantelle Boutin says one of her two dogs died from the stress of their evacuation.
“We escaped and we came here to Anzac, which was our heaven, our safe place. They took care of our dog,” Boutin says from the Anzac Rec Centre, one of the facilities just outside Fort McMurray that’s helping evacuees.
“When we arrived, Buddy was so stressed out that he passed away, but he’s in heaven.”
Pet owners can call the SPCA at 780-743-8997. A Facebook page set up by Fort McMurray Fire Emergency Animal Assistance asks animal owners to fill out an online form. The information will help local authorities and animal rescue organizations rescue four-legged pals left behind.
— With files from John Cotter.