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Yellowknife veterinarian Michelle Tuma has been working tirelessly throughout the city’s evacuation to ensure pet owners were equipped with crates and other necessities for their animals.

On Monday, there was a slight change of pace. She helped 16 more animals board a flight to safety sponsored by a vodka company.

Tuma says the idea came after Maggie McGuane reached out to the NWT SPCA to offer her support. McGuane is the daughter of Yellowknife-born actor Margot Kidder, best known for playing Lois Lane in the Superman movies of the 1970s and 80s.

McGuane works in animal disaster response and is connected to Wings of Rescue, an organization that helps move animals between shelters or to adoptive homes.

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“When she heard about the mass evacuations happening in the Northwest Territories – and especially in Yellowknife, where it’s really close to her heart because this is where her mom’s from – she decided to reach out to us,” explained Tuma.

Initially, Tuma said, the plane was to use McGuane’s help to get shelter pets to safety. However, those animals ended up on a Buffalo Airways flight.

With the shelter animals evacuated, Tuma – who says she is the only practising vet left in Yellowknife – discussed her role in the city with the GNWT, who determined her to be an essential worker, meaning she could stay past the evacuation order to continue helping animals left behind.

Knowing there were animals still in the territorial capital and Hay River, Tuma reconnected with McGuane. On the resulting flight were six cats and three dogs from Yellowknife alongside four cats from Hay River. As a bonus, two snakes from Great Slave Animal Hospital joined as passengers.

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Michelle Tuma (left), Wings of Rescue pilots Anji (centre) and Kale Garcia in Yellowknife. Photo: Michelle Tuma

“They’ve been trying to move them to their retirement homes for years now, but could never find a place to take them, or an airline to take them,” said Tuma.

“We kind-of saw this as an opportunity to take them, finally, so the two snakes are on their way to their retirement home in Calgary.”

Most animals on the flight are on their way to be reunited with their owners, though some were abandoned, said Tuma. Those will be picked up by local shelters AARCS in Calgary and the BCSPCA in Vancouver.

Tuma says she is unsure how many animals remain in Yellowknife. She estimates around 30, including some being cared for by friends of their owners.

It takes a village

Evacuating animals in two different towns is not an easy task, nor a cheap one. Tuma knew the flight couldn’t go unsupported and worked with Wings of Rescue to secure Tito’s Handmade Vodka as a sponsor.

The vodka company pledged $10,000 to sponsor the flight, said Tuma, making it possible to get the pets to safety.

It wasn’t just Tuma and Wings of Rescue working toward the safety of the animals, though. The flight had to overnight in Edmonton before flying to Yellowknife – and while there, it was stocked full of supplies like dog food and cat litter by Cameron from Yellowknife’s Cheeky Chops Pet Salon.

“It was just really nice. The flight came up with supplies on it, we offloaded those and loaded the animals, and then they were on their way,” said Tuma.

Michelle Tuma and an evacuee dog pose with a bottle of Tito’s Handmade Vodka. Photo: Michelle Tuma

“And now we keep doing what we can to keep the animals still here safe. It’s been really amazing to witness everybody just coming together as a community. There’s so little people left here but we’re staying safe and being vigilant, and doing what we can for all the pets through Vets Without Borders and the NWT SPCA.”

The Wings of Rescue flight left Yellowknife on Monday morning before landing in Hay River to pick up the feline passengers. From Hay River, it was expected to drop some animals in Calgary then head to its final destination of Vancouver.

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