When it comes to seatmates on a plane, flying coach can often feel like winning or loosing a lottery. Screaming babies, nervous flyers, aisle-sleeping seatmates, chatty partners, or tuned-out phone users – they are all up in the air. With that in mind, then, seasoned travelers have been conditioned to expect anything when it comes to their fellow flyers.
Some Canadian airline passengers, however, were in for a surprise in May 2016 when they found themselves buckling up beside a menagerie of cats, dogs and even turtles. Needless to say, they were on no ordinary flight.
This was because rescue workers and volunteers had helped evacuate the animals from abandoned homes after devastating wildfires tore through Canada’s Fort McMurray. And, as you can imagine, for many of the rescued critters it was their first time cruising the skies.
It might not have been this at all, though. After all, more than 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray were forced from their homes due to the catastrophic blaze. Many left behind their clothes, memories and even their pets. But, with Fort McMurray citizen’s lives already devastated, animal lovers and good Samaritans decided to do all they could to ensure that these pets would be reunited with their families.
To help with the emergency, at least three airlines – Canadian North, Suncor Energy and WestJet – waved their strict animal policies to airlift the furry friends to safety. Flight crews overlooked their usual restrictions on both the number of animals on a flight, as well as how those animals are transported.
Indeed, some pets traveled with their owners, but others were unattended. One flight to Edmonton, for example, included 19 dogs, five cats, two turtles and 130 humans on its passenger manifest. Another flight had animals curled up in the aisle, on their owners’ laps and even secured in the restroom.
Luckily, most airline passengers were happy to share their space with the displaced animals, and the ensuing selfies and social media posts helped the news of the heartwarming story travel fast. Certainly, many passengers tweeted congratulation messages to the airlines for taking action to help.
“Kudos to @WestJet for helping in Fort McMurray and letting pets evacuate on planes,” one Twitter user wrote. “Truest of generosities. Evacuees from #ymmfire with their pets on board @WestJet,” another added.
Suncor Energy pilot Keith Mann, though, insisted that he and his crew were simply doing their bit to help. “We’re all animal-lovers here,” he told Metro News. “We knew it was important for owners to reconnect with [their pets]. It’s definitely one of those things you never imagine yourself doing, but I’m glad we did it.”
Flight attendant Wanda Murray of Canadian North added to CBC, “When we touched down, we got a standing ovation. It brought tears to our eyes. It’s a flight that will always remain in my memory.”
The wildfire is not likely to be forgotten in a hurry either. It started in Alberta on May 1, and it quickly ripped through the western province, destroying some 2,400 homes and buildings. With forests burning out of control, municipal authorities ordered what is now being called the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history: over 80,000 people were forced to leave.
Although the cause of the fire is currently unknown, unusually high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds helped fuel the flames. This mix of factors made it nearly impossible to contain the blaze.
As of May 18, 2016, more than 1,700 firefighters had been involved in attempting to halt the inferno, which had scorched 877,000 acres of land. The fire’s relentless march led some experts to suggest that the flames could even burn on into 2017.
Many Canadian communities, meanwhile, rallied together to support the communities the fire had displaced. Social media was filled with stories of humanity, from those who offered their homes as shelters to children who sold lemonade to fund relief efforts.
And, of course, there were those who took action – at first without government approval and then working with local authorities – after the evacuation to help rescue animals left behind in the chaos. Indeed, despite the risks, a small band of volunteers made it their mission to save Fort McMurray’s stranded pets.
Among them were the Western Canadian Powerstrokes, who describe themselves as “truck enthusiasts who do charity work.” The group battled their way into abandoned homes to rescue over two dozen creatures before they were stopped by police.
“It was a spur of the moment thing. And we just decided not to sit around anymore. We said, ‘Let’s go save some pets,’” volunteer Wyatt Colquhoun-Rivard told CBC News.
A website was set up where owners could report their pets missing. Plus, a Facebook page dedicated to that cause has over 5,000 members, and a GoFundMe campaign was also set up to help finance the pet search and rescue.
“Our mission is to assure these animals are as comfortable as possible with putting no stress on their families to pull out of pocket to make sure their pets are fed and well taken care of. A lot of these families have lost everything, and we want to do everything and anything we can to help take one thing off of their to-do lists,” the fundraising page read.
The work they, and everybody else, have done is incredibly meaningful to those it affects. Louise Cruz, for instance, was emotionally devastated to leave the city without her eight-month-old puppy Atlas. When he was returned to her, however, Cruz said, “I was finally able to breathe. I was like ‘Okay, he’s not hurt’. We all cried tears of joy.”