Volunteers provide critter care for Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees

A petite woman strains to keep hold of the leash attached to a big, shaggy and very happy dog.

LAC LA BICHE — A petite woman strains to keep hold of the leash attached to a big, shaggy and very happy dog.

The rambunctious pooch drags her past Fort McMurray fire evacuees gathered at picnic tables outside the Bold Center sports complex in Lac La Biche, Alta.

Dog walker is a coveted volunteer gig here.

“We thought we might make it a rule where you have to actually clean at least a kennel before you get to walk a dog. We haven’t done that yet,” M.J. Siebold, with the Lac La Biche Regional Humane Society, said with a laugh.

Kennels and cages are arranged in a row in the middle of a large room in the upstairs of the Bold Center. Cats and dogs are kept separate. Big bags of food and other supplies are piled along the wall. There’s a veterinary ward in the back.

The warehouse-like room echoes, so volunteers make an effort to keep it as quiet as possible, so as not to stress out the critters.

There are a lot of comings and goings, but at last count there were 10 dogs and 33 cats — plus “a couple of bunnies and a hedgehog,” said Siebold.

Seven volunteers are needed for a shift and there are four shifts a day.

“It’s mostly dirty work. It’s cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning,” said Siebold, an orange kitten playfully pawing a piece of fabric behind her.

“We have a lot of kennels that are donated that need to be sterilized before we can use them here or give them out to people who need them.”

For Siebold, overseeing pet-care at the Bold Center means putting in 15-hour days and riding an “emotional roller coaster” at times.

Some cats weren’t coping well because of the stress, and arrangements had to be made to move them to a calmer environment.

“They just shut down because of the noise and they won’t eat and they don’t respond to touch,” she said.

“We have some senior pets here and it’s really hard on them.”

The animal care workers also have to soothe anxious pet owners who have been through the emotional wringer over the past week.

“It’s something that they brought, it’s that sense of normalcy. I think they’re frustrated that they can’t keep their pets with them, though,” said Siebold.

“They know they’re cared for. They know they’re safe. And whenever I say that to someone, that’s usually when we have meltdowns because they’re just so stressed about their pets.

“They find out what we provide for their pets and they’re just overwhelmed most of the time and just so appreciative — so, so appreciative.”

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