Wildfire refugees: Shelter dogs airlifted from California to Cranbrook

California wildfires are placing immense pressure on animals shelters. Cranbrook steps in to help

A remarkable airlift of animals from an overcrowded California shelter touched down in Cranbrook Sunday evening, December 17, bringing 32 dogs to Canada and to new forever homes.

The Wings of Rescue flight from Camarillo brought the dogs in from the Ventura County Animal Services shelter (VCAS), which has seen its population of animals swell by hundreds over a matter of days, due to the devastation caused by the wildfires burning across southern California.

In an effort to help out, Karla Shalley, who operates Playpen Boarding And Grooming in Cranbrook, and Jaffray’s Deb Therrien, who heads up the Calgary Chapter of BARCS, a dog rescue service, took on the arrangement of the flight to Canada and the transfer of the dogs to new homes in Cranbrook, Jaffray and Calgary.

“Last Friday, I had an idea that I needed to help the animals in California,” Shalley said. “I was literally going to rent a van to drive down there and help them.”

Instead, Shalley started working with Therrien on the plan, and things went forward quickly.

“We brainstormed, [Therrien] said ‘let me see what I can do’ and that’s where it started.”

Therrien, through her own contacts with Ventura Animal Rescue Services, was able to arrange the Wings of Rescue flight from Camarillo to Cranbrook.

“They made the magic happen,” Shalley said. “They picked some dogs, they said ‘do you want these ones,’ we said ‘yes, we’ll take them up.’”

Wings of Rescue — a charity that flies endangered pets to new locations where they can be adopted — was able to make the transition quickly — within the week, Shalley said. The plane took off from Camarillo Sunday morning, after delays caused by wildfire smoke, carrying the dogs in portable kennels, and touched down at the Canadian Rockies International Airport (CRIA) late afternoon on Sunday, Dec. 17

Shalley, Therrien, and a team of volunteers were there to welcome the dogs to Canadian soil.

Therrien moved from Calgary to Jaffray in recent years, taking the opportunity to expand BARCS area of operations. She said the havoc wrought by the California fires have put massive pressure on animal shelters. The big VCAS shelter, for example, normally has a population of around 400 animals. This number quickly rose to 800 when the fires started burning. At present there are some 1,100 animals in the shelter — who’ve become separated from their owners or whose homes have been destroyed. The Thomas Fire burning though Ventura County, where Camarillo is located, has destroyed some 114,000 acres (more than 46,000 hectares). BARCS, Wings of Rescue and other organizations have been working to help relieve the pressure and find homes for the unclaimed animals, with flights all over North America. The Cranbrook flight was the biggest Canadian operation to date.

On Sunday afternoon, the plane landed at CRIA, and the team of volunteers pushed it into the ELT Aviation hanger. The volunteers had spent an hour in advance arranging the travel kennels for each of the dogs to be transferred to.

Customs officials were on hand to check the paperwork. Such an operation as a cross-border animal shelter airlift requires a great deal of preparation.

Therrien said that all the dogs have had to pass a rigorous battery of health certificate tests, and are completely up to date with their shots. And it is essential that they were calm and healthy before getting on the plane.

“If they are sick, or acting out, they will not get on the plane,” Therrien said.

From the plane, the volunteers unloaded the dogs in their cages and placed them on the hanger floor, so the paperwork could be checked, and the dogs transferred one at a time, to their Canadian travel kennels. The four dogs going to Calgary — all pitbulls — were given quick walks around the hanger prior to departure.

Many different breeds were represented in the airlift — pitfalls, border collies, terriers, a schnauzer cross, a chocolate lab, chihuahuas … bearing names like Biscuit and Bandit, Molly, Mary, Martini and Max. The dogs were calm and subdued after their flight, though a chorus of barking soon rang out throughout the hanger. When released from their cages, for a brief stretch, the canines joy and relief was palpable.

Shalley stressed that the dogs flown to Canada were dogs who would not be claimed by former owners, who had been in the shelter before the fires began.

“These are dogs who have been surrendered and are available for adoption,” she said. “Strictly dogs who will not be reclaimed.”

The dogs did who did not go on to Calgary Sunday night were off for a sojourn at the Playpen in Cranbrook for a couple of days, to stretch their legs.

“We’re going to assess them, take a look at their behaviour … some of them, due to the expediency of this operation, are still intact, and need to be spayed or neutered. And because of that they’ll be staying with us at the Playpen for a while until they get their surgery.

“Then we’re looking for forever homes.”

Shalley said that over the past week, there has been a great feedback from the local public.

“A lot of people have wanted to meet the dogs, and we’ve had a great response in terms of donations from the community. People have really stepped up.”

For more information on the Cranbrook dog rescue efforts, you can go to the Playpen’s Facebook Page — “The Playpen- Pet Boarding & Grooming” in the search bar.

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