Almost three weeks after Yellowknife’s evacuation order was lifted, staff at the city’s animal shelter are still going to some people’s homes and taking care of their pets.
For various reasons, not everyone has returned home yet. Some people left pets behind as they fled a wildfire in August, and the NWT SPCA continues to help them out.
Meanwhile, dogs moved south from other shelters in the territory are now being shipped as far afield as Halifax, Nova Scotia to find new homes.
While the wildfire crisis shows signs of passing, weeks-long evacuations have only added strain to the handful of animal shelters that already struggled to cope.
In Yellowknife, the daily ritual of touring homes to feed pets has been happening for six weeks. Nicole Spencer, the NWT SPCA’s executive director, says going to homes – and, sometimes, figuring out how to get into them – has been “the biggest challenge.”
“There were about 140 pets that we helped” since mid-August, Spencer said. Aside from getting into homes, the work also involved chasing dogs that had been set loose and taking them to the shelter.
In an attempt to account for pets left behind, the City of Yellowknife and NWT SPCA released a pet retrieval request form soon after the evacuation began.
By signing the form, pet owners consented to municipal enforcement, a locksmith and animal care specialists accessing their homes, then giving food and water to pets on the premises.
“I have two cats that I’m visiting every day,” said Spencer, long after the evacuation had ended. (The Yellowknife shelter is also still holding pets waiting to be reunited with their owners.)
Just as volunteers checked on pets, local businesses checked on the volunteers and staff themselves, helping where they could.
Spencer said Yellowknife’s Fishy People, for example, provided food for the shelter almost every day.
“We were very grateful for all the people that helped us out. Even bringing in food for us every day at the shelter was amazing,” she said. “People were very, very generous.”
Some Yellowknife residents who chose to stay behind became impromptu foster parents.
One such volunteer, Laura Thompson, took in four cats and a hamster.
Thompson stayed in the city after deciding there was “not enough clear vision” setting out how she could get to safety with her elderly cat, which southern accommodation might allow the cat to stay, and whether there’d be any space by the time she got there.
“Knowing that that was a problem, I knew a few animals would probably get left behind, and I volunteered to help them,” she said.
Three flights (two organized by the NWT SPCA and one by Veterinarians Without Borders) took shelter animals out of Yellowknife to safety elsewhere – and flights are still taking the territory’s animals to new lives after their initial evacuations south.
On Monday, for example, a charter flight organized by Veterinarians Without Borders and Wings of Rescue flew 16 dogs from Grande Prairie to Halifax. The 11 puppies and five adult dogs had originally been Hay River evacuees, and will now be welcomed in by the Nova Scotia SPCA.
Kori Bourne, operator of Hay River’s lone animal shelter, was out of town when a wildfire triggered the community’s evacuation order on August 13.
“When I got word that an evacuation was happening, I was just getting ready to come back home – and found out I couldn’t come home because everyone was being told to leave,” Bourne told Cabin Radio.
Four volunteers initially looked after the shelter’s animals and toured houses to feed pets that remained in the community.
One volunteer, Ashley Hume, coordinated with people still in the town to make sure all houses were covered and no animals were missing.
Some of the shelter’s pets were eventually flown to Edmonton, while others were driven out of town.
Once they arrived in Grande Prairie, Bourne coordinated with rescues in Alberta to figure out a space for nearly 20 dogs and 18 cats to stay. That’s when she contacted the Nova Scotia SPCA to see if they had space for any dogs.
Making arrangements for the animals was a stressful task, especially for a community where three evacuations have taken place in 15 months.
“It’s been really hard. It’s mentally exhausting trying to coordinate a place for these animals to go … We’re just making phone calls and making connections,” Bourne said.
“Just the habit of a lot of other organizations coming forward and really helping us out, having them be able to help out, has been a blessing.”
A few dogs had to stay in Hay River if they had kennel training problems or aggression issues, Hume said. Dogs that volunteers weren’t able to capture after significant efforts also had to stay.
Several dogs found wandering Hay River were brought into the shelter. Since residents returned, all of those dogs have been claimed. (Some dogs needed stitches after dog fights in the community, Hume said, while volunteers in Fort Smith described one dog being flown to Edmonton after suffering serious injuries through becoming stuck in a fence.)
Hume said Paradise Pets gave volunteers access to its store, allowing them to use its suppliers at the shelter. She says emergency responders helped to walk the animals and none show signs of major stress.
“For the most part, they probably got more attention than normal. I think they were fine,” she said.
Spencer calls the evacuation in Yellowknife a “big eye-opener” for the shelter and for pet owners.
She says the NWT SPCA must now plan to tackle similar emergencies in the future, and urges pet owners to think about steps they can take to ensure the safety of their animals during a wildfire crisis.
“Everybody needs to think about what they would do in an emergency situation and how they will get their pets out,” she said.
The SPCA is at half capacity right now, with six adult dogs and a few cats, but Spencer thinks that won’t be the case for long.
She said more puppies are on the way and there will be a need to send more dogs south, “but the southern rescues are very full as well.”
If you are considering adoption, she concluded, now is a good time to send in an application.