Casting lines to feed wildfire-abandoned pets
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When the pet food supply ran out at Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, Desmond Castel headed to a nearby lake, hopped in a canoe and began fishing for the dogs.
Castel has been caring for dozens of pets in his northern Manitoba community since a nearby wildfire forced fellow residents to flee. Nearly a month later, many such animals are still stranded in the community, some 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg, waiting to be reunited with their owners.
In a Facebook post shared Aug. 2, the Manitoba Animal Alliance volunteer broadcast a video of himself on the water, while the dogs eagerly awaited their next meal.
“You see that little island right there? They’re all standing in that island waiting for me. So I hope I catch something today,” he said.
Debra Vandekerkhove, managing director and founder of Manitoba Animal Alliance, said when Castel first contacted the Winnipeg based non-profit, he was living off granola bars.
The community grocery store had been abandoned after residents were forced to flee the area. Running water and power are luxuries Castel no longer has access to. Now, a portion of the organization’s donations goes towards ensuring Castel is cared for, so he can care for the animals.
“We’re in constant communication with him,” Vandekerkhove said. “We maintain contact with him in regards to the dogs that he currently has, what his needs are, and then co-ordinating when we’re able to get food to certain access points.”
For six years, Manitoba Animal Alliance has helped transfer pets from northern Indigenous communities impacted by wildfires. When families flee such areas via planes, trains and automobiles, they are often forced to leave animal companions behind.
According to Vandekerkhove, 73 pets have been evacuated from Mathias Colomb. The rest rely on Castel, who feeds around 34 dogs every day.
“There’s a lot of urgency right now. There are a lot of animals that are not getting fed on a regular basis because they’re scared, they’re hiding,” Vandekerkhove said.
With community members temporarily residing in hotels and evacuation shelters, the organization has relied heavily on social media to reunite pets with their companions.
“We post the photographs of the animals. We let them know which ones require medical care, and some people have identified their animals that way,” Vandekerkhove said.
Displaced residents often contact Manitoba Animal Alliance about the possible pick-up of stranded pets. Weeks after the Mathias Colomb evacuation, however, many of the dogs have since left their home areas.
“It’s really, really difficult now because the dogs have started to group together, so they’re no longer in the place where they used to live,” Vandekerkhove said. “We can’t really help people identify pets anymore. other than to show them pictures of the animals that are being fed.”
Others have also come to Castel’s aid, too. On Aug. 4, the Keewatin Railway Company and RCMP helped deliver truckloads of animal supplies and food, giving hope Castel will no longer have to fish for the dogs.
According to the most recent provincial wildfire bulletin, the 130,000-acre blaze remains less than one kilometre from the main community of Pukatawagan, but the immediate infrastructure risk had decreased.