When dogs, lizards and goats arrived at the oilsands

Amidst the commotion of Fort McMurray evacuees flooding into the lobby of Shell's Albian Sands oilsands camp during last year's wildfire, Grant Zellweger noticed a strange smell.

A few other Shell staff noticed it too, but couldn't pinpoint what was reeking up the room. Eventually Zellweger tracked it down to some crates covered by a blanket. He lifted up a corner and discovered seven lizards of various sizes in open plastic containers.

Zellweger found the owner and quickly found the reptiles a room, fearing chaos in the crowded lobby if the lizards escaped.

Chatting with the owner, he figured out the source of the odour.

"The smell was the food. The food for the lizards, well, they ate bats, mice and things like that that were frozen and were thawing out. That's where the smell was coming out," recalls Zellweger, who manages the Albian Sands facilities. 

Over 1,800 kgs of dog food

When people from Fort McMurray fled north to the oilsands camps during last year's massive wildfire, facilities not only had to prepare food and water for evacuees, but also for the thousands of pets brought along during the mass evacuation. 

Oilsands camps are strictly for workers and there's a ban on pets, so staff grappled with what to do when it seemed like every family that arrived at camp brought an animal or two with them. 

Initially, there was some thought to separate the pets and house them in a different location for safety and sanitary reasons. However, it was decided people were already stressed out from the evacuation and taking away their beloved pets would only add to the anxiety.

"One of the first emergency response calls I was part of, they asked 'what do you need at the village?,'" says Zellweger. "We got lucky with the food already, we had all of that, we had the basic needs for the people. But we never had anything for the animals. So the first request was 'I need dog food.'"

The initial order was more than 1,800 kilograms.

Every animal imaginable

Talk to just about anyone who was at the oilsands camps during the evacuation one year ago and undoubtedly the conversation turns to animals.

There were dogs roaming the baseball fields at Canadian Natural Resources' Horizon facility and cats wondering the lobby at Suncor's Firebag camp. Don't forget the birds, snakes and turtles.

"Not having fed kids or pets on site [before], it was something we had to move quickly on," says Suncor's Jeff Eichenlaud, who remembers the dilemma of getting kitty litter shipped in.

Goats and even a horse showed up at Syncrude's site.

"There was a significant diversity, let's say, of animals on our site at the time," says Mal Carroll with the oilsands company. 

He remembers seeing one particular family with an exceptionally distressed cat that was sinking its claws into its owners. As engineers, Mal and a few others looked around for spare materials and quickly built a makeshift crate for the cat. The family was relieved as the sharp claws recoiled. 

"These are the little things, the little details from the human side that really helped put people at ease in a very stressful circumstance," says Carroll.  

Flying fido home

After figuring out how to feed and house the eclectic group of animals, the next challenge was sending the pets home with their families. 

At first, oilsands staff convinced airlines to allow them to travel on the laps of their owners, basically like a carry-on item.

"That's the Noah's Ark flights, the first couple of them," says Dan Drew, the head of security at Albian Sands. "These people have lost everything and all they have left is their pets, in some cases the kids they had with them. Some people didn't even have a wallet. So we asked the air crew if they would take the pets on board and they did."

Pictures emerged on social media of cats, dogs and even a hedgehog spending time in the cabin at 30,000 feet.

"It was really good for them to do that," says Drew, "but after a while I think somebody in Calgary woke up and said that was a bit of a flight hazard." 

In the meantime, oilsands companies were sending staff in Calgary and Edmonton to stores in order to buy as many cat and dog carriers as they could find to be loaded onto planes headed to Fort McMurray to airlift evacuees."One thing Shell did is purchase probably the majority of animal crates in the province of Alberta and have them delivered to Albian," says Zellweger. 

Those crates were later donated to non-profit groups.

Caring for a pet of any type always requires a certain amount of cleanup and it was no different in the oilsands. The dorm rooms at the Albian Sands camp required three weeks of thorough scrubbing to remove all the hair and other animal remnants.