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Beloved pets in Canada rescued from wildfires by volunteers who stayed behind

This photo provided by Veterinarians Without Borders shows two volunteers from U.S.-based Wings of Rescue in Yellowknife load 17 animals to be reunited or relocated safely outside the fire zone, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Yellowknife, Canada. Many people who took buses or planes to evacuate the area affected by the wildfires in the area could not bring their pets with them and were forced to leave the animals behind. Working with staff around Canada at Veterinarians Without Borders, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; local officials; Dr. Michelle Tuma, a veterinarian in the Northern Territories capital of Yellowknife; and others have been busy helping to save, transport and care for pets as firefighters battle to keep the flames at bay. (Michelle Tuma/Veterinarians Without Borders via AP)

Wildfires forced Amanda Dengler to flee her home in Canada’s Northwest Territories three times in the past 18 months, and each time her cats have evaded her attempts to bring them along.

The latest time, Dengler had to stay away longer than expected, and joined the many residents who have turned to networks of volunteers who are rescuing animals from communities threatened by Canada’s record year of wildfires.

Dengler said she tried to catch her three cats on Aug. 13, when she left her home in the town of Hay River because of a nearby wildfire.

“I think they picked up on my fear and it kind of drove their fear a little bit, and they were not cooperative,” she said.

So, she took her two dogs, a suitcase of clothes and her electronics with her. She filled a bathtub with water and left an open bag of dry food on the floor for the cats, thinking she’d be gone for a few days. Once it became longer than that, she looked for help.

That’s when she saw a message on Facebook from Dr. Michelle Tuma, a veterinarian in the Northwest Territories capital of Yellowknife and a member of Veterinarians Without Borders. Tuma has spent the past month trying to help families flee with their pets, reunite with them or keep tabs on animals left behind.

“It’s hard because we don’t really know how long this is going to go on for,” Tuma said.

Her first involvement was helping residents of the small town of Behchoko, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Yellowknife, when they evacuated to the territorial capital on July 24 because of a wildfire.

Many who took buses or planes could not bring their pets with them and were forced to leave the animals behind, Tuma said.

“So we had an amazing group of people who went into the community, helped rescue a bunch of animals out of the community at the owners’ consent and brought them to Yellowknife,” she said.

Ultimately more than 100 animals were rescued and brought to the city where they were kept at boarding facilities, shelters or with the more than 80 foster families who came forward to help.

In the following weeks, there were evacuations in more communities and more pets to help. Then, on Aug. 16, an evacuation order was issued for Yellowknife. In several days, about 20,000 of the city’s roughly 23,000 residents left.

Tuma, however, decided to remain, as an essential worker.

“I’ve been working these wildfires for every other community for the last month and it was just a no-brainer for me to stay back and help with my community, my hometown, and give back to this amazing city,” she said.

Working with staff around Canada at Veterinarians Without Borders, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and local officials, Tuma and others have been busy helping to save, transport and care for pets as firefighters battle to keep the flames at bay.

They’ve brought food and water to homebound pets, fielded calls from worried pet owners, and helped arrange for the delivery of much-needed animal transport crates to remote areas.

“At first, the flights weren’t allowing pets on unless they had carriers and the city immediately sold out of those,” said Charly Jarrett, director of communications for Veterinarians Without Borders.

Eventually, military flights as well as commercial flights allowed evacuees to bring their pets aboard without a crate.

Tuma — sometimes with the help of a locksmith — has been busy rescuing animals in their homes, including a scared kitty who was hiding behind a washing machine before giving Tuma a couple of bites. She also helped staff at a local vet clinic pack up an angry snake for transport. It was spitting, hissing and lunging at its rescuers as they tried to remove it from a glass enclosure.

Tuma also has treated sick animals, prescribed sedatives for anxious ones who needed to be transported, and helped keep track of the approximately 70 to 80 animals still in Yellowknife.

Maggie McGuane — daughter of the late Canadian actor Margot Kidder, a native of Yellowknife who was known for playing Lois Lane in the Superman movies — contacted Veterinarians Without Borders to offer help. McGuane is involved with Wings of Rescue, a California-based charity that transports at-risk pets from disaster areas and overcrowded shelters.

On Aug. 20, a husband and wife team of volunteer pilots from Wings of Rescue flew out 17 animals, including two snakes. The cost of the flight was partly covered by a $10,000 donation from the American-based Tito’s Handmade Vodka and the company’s Vodka for Dog People Charity.

Two of Dengler’s cats, which had to be picked up in Hay River — a five-hour drive from Yellowknife — were on that flight. Her third cat, a 7-year-old indoor-outdoor cat named Stitch, was still at large but was recently spotted by a neighbor.

Dengler, who is staying with friends in Calgary, said it was a relief to know at least her other four pets were safe.

“I think right now people are looking for comfort, right? You leave your whole life behind and … sometimes pets can be family members for some people,” she said. “Even if I lost my house. Even if I lost all my belongings, I still have the life of my animals. Everything else is replaceable.”