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The YMCA’s Wildfire Pet Memorial Service helps Fort McMurray honour forgotten victims.

On June 10, Fort McMurray residents gathered at Snye Park to grieve pets lost in the wild fire that raged through the city on May 3, 2016.

The remarkable evacuation that removed all humans from harm’s way could not help hundreds of dogs, cats, horses and other animals left behind. Some were intentionally turned loose or had bolted in panic.  Others were trapped in homes to which owners could not return. Last-minute rescue efforts located many pets, which the SPCA, Westjet and others transported to safety while Facebook groups sought their owners.

“A year later, some people are still looking for their pets,” says Debbie Martin, of the YMCA of Northern Alberta’s Wood Buffalo Region. Others know their pets have died – either perishing in the blaze or succumbing to evacuation stress. Martin says both agonize over whether they could have done more.

“It isn't just, 'get over it and move on',” says Linda Sovdi, Health and Wellness Manager with Some other Solutions. Losing a pet’s consistent faith and acceptance can be devastating, she explains – especially for those who are disabled, live alone, or deal with mental health issues like depression. If the pet was given to you by a lost loved one, the grief is compounded. “If you don’t deal with it, it can become maladaptive.” Some may avoid new attachments or engage in negative behaviours.

Martin and her colleagues in the Supports for Wellness program found no mention of pet loss in studies of previous wild fires raging through populated areas. With new fires raging in B.C., they felt it was time to bring this issue to light. Partnering with The Bone & Biscuit Pet Store, Borealis Pet Centre and The Fort McMurray SPCA, the Y staged the first-ever Wildfire Pet Memorial Service.

“We wanted to enable folks to grieve and engage in the event,” says YMCA wellness worker Shannon Smith.  Facebook postings and Flyers invited people to bring pictures and stories for a tri-fold memory board. One Facebook group contributed over 100 photos. Another participant brought a painting of a pet.

The Bone & Biscuit’s Melanie Paton & Holly Hashimi welcomed about two dozen mourners to the service. Dr. Hannah Campbell from the Wood Buffalo Small Animal Hospital described treating many frightened, burned, injured and unidentified pets. Debbie Martin gave a presentation on the impact of grief and loss on pet owners.  Integrity Yoga’s Carol MacDonald closed the service, leading a wellness moment on releasing grief.

Participants enjoyed refreshments from the Real Canadian Superstore, and added their pets’ names to a giant banner that would hang in the Biscuit & Bone Pet Store. Pet Valu donated memorial rocks with frames for pet pictures.

The Y brought a sign-up sheet for those interested in joining a support group. SPCA, CARE Wood Buffalo, Alberta Health Service and Wood Buffalo Small Animal Hospital staff, along with social work practicum students from Keyano College, stood ready to support mourners and answer questions. Some Other Solutions distributed “Bearing Your Burden Bears” while Paws for People provided cuddly “snuggle therapy” pets.

After a year dealing with an often-misunderstood anguish, mourners had a day to find comfort. 

“There were lots of hugs and lots of tears,” Smith says. Attending was hard for some but they were ultimately grateful. “They felt that it would help them move forward.”

For More Information:

If you would like more information on the pet loss support group, or any other YMCA counselling program, please contact Debbie at 587-537-5021.