HIGH RIVER, Alta. - It's not just people who want to go back to their homes in flood-ravaged High River in southern Alberta — hundreds of four-legged evacuees are waiting to be reunited with their owners and to return to more familiar surroundings.
When the 13,000 residents of the town south of Calgary were forced from their homes a week ago, up to 2,000 dogs, cats, birds and even lizards were left behind. A mandatory evacuation and the swiftness with which waters rose meant that many people weren't able to retrieve their furry or feathered friends.
Police and military officials rescued many of the critters. Organizations such as the Heaven Can Wait Animal Rescue Foundation, located just a few kilometres southwest of High River, have helped with rescues and given the animals a temporary home.
The rural facility is anything but peaceful right now. There's a cacophony of barking, yelping, yowling and meowing. It's been a stressful time for shelter founder Kim Hessel.
"You just do what you need to do. You keep things organized. I'm trying to get as much information (as possible) to people about the status of their animals," she said as she gave The Canadian Press a tour of the shelter she founded in 1999.
"People need to have a better idea of what's going on so that the panic goes away and they feel they have a chance of getting their animals back."
High River's bylaw service has reported that more than 400 pets have been rescued so far and removed from water-soaked homes. Unfortunately rescuers also have found that hundreds have died.
"That's a sad reality of course in any natural disaster," said an emotional Hessel.
"I know it couldn't be avoided and I'm sure a lot of those are a result of rushing water ... but nobody wants to think that their animal has died a tragic death."
For the first few days most of the pets returned to their owners were dogs. But now the sanctuary is full of cats curled up quietly in pet carriers stacked one on top of the other in Hessel's garage.
Most of the owners have been contacted but there are other shelters, including one in nearby Cayley as well as the facilities at the Calgary Humane Society, that have animals as well. In some cases it's just a matter of luck.
"This one lady was in and didn't even know her cats were here, and she kind of turned around the corner and I've never seen a reaction like that before," said shelter worker Debbie Pedersen.
"I started crying and she started crying."
Photos of pets are being posted on the Facebook pages for both Heaven Can Wait and Cyndi's Pet Palace.
Hessel is on the phone constantly and was expecting another dropoff of animals.
"Honestly, I'm not really worried about numbers. We're getting as many as we can, keeping them safe, getting them numbered so we know where they belong.
"We're going to call people. I think people are anxious enough that if I call them and tell them, 'Your cat is here. Come now' that they're going to come. At least I'm hoping they will."
Stephanie McQuaid has been involved in a number of rescues with police and soldiers going door to door. She said the devastation is pretty tough to take in, but there is a bright spot when you find a pet alive and well.
"It breaks your heart to see all the damage that has been done, but there's a lot of happy stories with them going home," she said.
"That kind of fills your heart up a little bit. For me, that's been the happy spot seeing people come back for their animals."
The rapidly rising Highwood River burst its banks June 20 and surged through neighbourhoods. A number of people and pet rescues were by boat.
Hessel said despite the successes she isn't feeling any personal sense of satisfaction.
"Right this second? No I don't. I feel like I can't do enough.
"I feel that we can't reach enough and I feel like I can't give all the people I'm talking to enough of my time," she said.
"This is not satisfying in any way. This is difficult, hard stuff and there's a lot of big emotion going on."
For more information: Kim Hessel at Heaven Can Wait - 403-660-4744
Cyndi's Pet Palace
Calgary Humane Society