‘Ottawa’ Pets 911: Animal Rescue a Priority During the Ottawa River Flood
In the Bible, the animals were saved by Noah and his Ark. In Constance Bay, they had Ottawa firefighters and their inflatable Fortuna rescue boat.
“For most people, pets are such an important psycho-social support during times of crisis,” said Danielle Cardinal of Ottawa Fire Services, who was on hand Friday when firefighters rescued a woman and her pets from a flooded home on Bayview Drive.
“Firefighters recognize that very important relationship. In this case, that occupant made it very very clear that if their pets weren’t going with them, they were going to stay in the home.”
The woman’s home was already surrounded by the still-rising Ottawa River last Friday evening when firefighters brought the woman’s pets — three parrots and two cats — to safety. The woman soon followed. The animals were taken to be cared for by family members.
“The birds are very susceptible to cold so it was very important that we had a heated service vehicle so that the birds didn’t succumb to the cold and the damp conditions,” Cardinal said.
Rescuing pets during a disaster is about more than just showing compassion for an animal in need. Increasingly, emergency workers are recognizing the important role animals play in the health and well being of humans. Just petting a dog has been shown to increase levels of oxytocin, the “feel good hormone,” said paramedic Tracy Levesque, handler of the paramedic service’s therapy dog, Max.
“It makes a person feel safe and comfortable,” said Levesque, who brought Max with her when she volunteered to fill sandbags in Fitzroy Harbour over the weekend. “Their blood pressure comes down. Their heart rates comes down. And it happens instantly.”
During the fires in Fort McMurray last summer, many residents who fled had not choice but to leave their animals behind. Volunteers were organized to care for the stranded animals, which was reassuring for evacuees stranded hundreds of kilometres away, Cardinal said.
“Children and pets generate the same level of emotional interest when it comes to a story. When an emergency happens, it’s particularly important for people to retain that connection with their pet.”
Wednesday night, Dr. Ian Cameron of the Westboro Animal Hospital headed out to Constance Bay with a load of pain, arthritis and thyroid medications for a number of animals, whose families had been displaced.
“Some of the animals are getting into the water and it may not be the cleanest water,” Cameron said. “And the exposure. It’s still quite cold at night and some of these animals aren’t used to the temperature.”
With their immune systems depleted, the animals are prone to infection and abscesses from being wet, he said.
Some of the pet owners themselves are elderly and have health problems of their own and have been spending all their money and energy on dealing with the flood, he said. Cameron provided his care for free and the medication at cost.
Families with pets who have been displaced by the flooding can find help through the Pet Disaster Relief Ottawa-Gatineau Facebook page. It can link pet owners with foster homes where their pets can be cared for and is a clearing house for pet-related information.
The group expects the need for help will increase in the next few days as emergency shelters close and displaced residents look for more stable accommodation, said Melany Gagné of the organization Freedom Dog Rescue.
“It’s still early. They have until Saturday at wherever they’re placed. People aren’t worrying about that just yet,” she said.
“We also have put out the call that if anybody is displaced and not able to care for their pet, then we have foster homes with Freedom Dog Rescue. They’re approved. They’re screened. People can tap into us so that we could care for their dogs while they get back up on their feet.”
The Ottawa Humane Society and the SPCA in the Outaouis are also offering help for pet owners. OHS hasn’t seen too much demand for its service, but a worker who answered the after hours line at the SPCA said it had “a lot” of displaced animals in its care.
And just like their human owners, animals can be affected by the stress of the crisis, Gagné said.
“Animals feed off of their owners or masters in terms of the stress. So their behaviours can change. They can become more nervous. More reactive. Their disposition can change completely,” she said.