Local shelter volunteers help Slave Lake animals after fire
Wednesday, May 25, 2011 04:03 pm
I wasn’t really sure what to expect, driving up to Slave Lake. I had seen the devastating pictures online, and on television, but I knew it wouldn’t be the same in person. My coworker Jenn and I also weren’t sure what to expect at the emergency shelter that the Animal Rescue Committee of Slave Lake, with help from the Edmonton Humane Society, set up. We had offered whatever help they needed, loaded up the truck with our donations, and left at 6 a.m. from Jenn’s cabin. We were excited to help them, but mostly we were nervous.
Pictures from the disaster don’t do the reality justice. Smoke filled the air before we reached the first roadblock. Helicopters constantly buzzed the sky, carrying water to the still burning fires in the surrounding area. Wildlife, driven from their homes, scattered as we passed by on the highway.
We arrived at the Cat equipment rental store in Slave Lake at about 10 a.m. Four teams of people came in and out of their headquarters dropping off more animals and being dispatched to more houses. The people of Slave Lake, who left for what they thought would be a short-term evacuation, had recently been told that they wouldn’t be back for weeks and were desperately calling the animal rescue hotline to get their animals saved from their houses. They begged us to find them, or at least have food left on the porch in case the animals ever returned.
The animals that were picked up were put into kennels set up in one of the bays. Donations of pet food, kennels, dishes, and treats were piled up in the small space. Despite the stressful situation, it was surprisingly quiet. Cats stacked next to dogs happily slept, unafraid. Rabbits, birds, and even reptiles and spiders were scattered along the tops of cages and even invaded the dispatch office. Spare empty space was a hot commodity.
Jenn and I set to work to help organize the chaos. The Animal Rescue Commitee of Slave Lake’s first priority was, of course, rescuing the animals left amongst the rubble of the town. We sorted and stacked, walked dogs, cleaned litter, snuggled cats, cleaned faces, whistled for the birds, sun bathed the turtles and swept up the dust. For each new animal that was brought in, we identified where they were found, took their picture, and set them up in whatever spare kennel we could find. Jenn would coax the terrified animals to drink fresh water, slowly scratching them behind the ears. They eased into her hand, closed their eyes, and relaxed. It was like they knew that we were there to help.
One of the biggest things I realized about a disaster area is how much we take for granted. Fresh, running water, electricity, Internet, restaurants and shops, safety. Even though we were kept to the areas considered “safe,” there was always a risk of the fire starting again. A gust of wind and the smouldering coals in the ruins could reignite. While I thought about that, a peace officer came in and told us about the helicopter crash. A pilot was dragging the lake for water for the fire, and was pulled under. He didn’t make it. The first fatality was a hero. A man dedicated to volunteering his time, and now his life, to protect us.
The hours seemed to pass by in seconds and when it was time to go, it was hard to leave. Did we do enough? Will it ever be enough? This isn’t going to be an overnight success. The houses and forests in Slave Lake are going to be smoldering for weeks. People won’t be able to return for their animals for a long time.
While we were there, we took in and cared for 54 animals. They had been working for a week at locating and catching animals and had saved just over 250. That sounds amazing – and is – until you think about just how many people lived in Slave Lake. Eight thousand people. That’s 2,000 homes for a four-person family, average. Two thousand households displaced. Two thousand household’s of pets suddenly left to fend for themselves, some locked inside unable to escape the flames; and if they survived – unable to escape eventual dehydration and starvation.
We had to leave, but the Animal Rescue Committee of Slave Lake will be there until the job is done. Their animal shelter has to be rebuilt eventually, but for now their focus is on reuniting families with their pets.
There wasn’t a single family notified that their pet was safe that didn’t cry with thanks that they were OK. After losing their homes and their possessions, knowing that their pet was alive was like a ray of light and hope for these families.
This isn’t just about saving animals - this is about giving some comfort to the people devastated in the disaster.
We donated not just our time, but brought them litter boxes, kennels, pet food, toys, and a cheque for $500. It was what Tails to Tell Animal Rescue Shelter could manage to give; and that’s all anybody can do. Every penny counts and every penny goes to saving beloved animals torn from their families by fire.
If you would like to help, please send your monetary donations to:
Animal Rescue Committee of Slave Lake, Slave Lake, AB, T0G 2A0.
Courtney Kelly, Tails to Tell Animal Rescue Shelter