Louise Cruz got the puppy on her 14th birthday, a lovable Yorkie-Chihuahua cross whose small stature deserved a big name: Atlas.
They bonded immediately. When she got the evacuation order at school on Tuesday, her thoughts went to Atlas. She and her brother hopped a cab home to the Beacon Hill area, but the road was blocked. The flames were too close. "I've been thinking of him from the moment the fire started," Louise, now living at an Edmonton-area hotel with her family, said. "He's only eight months old."
Like hundreds of other Fort McMurray residents, Louise and her family joined the snaking evacuation along Highway 63, leaving Atlas to an uncertain fate along with an estimated 600 other pets in and around the city.
With the human evacuation complete, a high-tech animal exodus is now in full swing. A band of volunteers, both authorized and unauthorized, have swept into the restricted area to remove a menagerie of pets by any means necessary.
Owners can report stranded pets on a website set up for the purpose. The results are posted on an online map that has become a testament to the diverse animal preferences in the city.
"We're hearing about lots of dogs and cats, but also one guy has 32 geckos that need rescue," said Shannon Orell-Bast, a Regina resident who started one of several Fort McMurray pet rescue pages on Facebook and is co-ordinating communication between owners and people in the disaster zone. "There are hamster, birds, snakes, parrots – you name it."
The requests listed on the crowd-sourced map are even more specific: dwarf boa constrictors, ball pythons and a bearded dragon lizard named Spike.
Mounds of kibbles await those animals that do make it out. The Edmonton Humane Society, like many other animal agencies in the province, has been inundated with donations from pet lovers around the city. "We have a whack of food here," chief executive officer Miranda Jordan-Smith said. "We have pallet upon pallet of food ready to ship out to the evacuation sites and Fort McMurray. The Edmonton community is always so giving."
The animal evacuation has taxed the City of Edmonton's animal care unit. With space for 60 dogs and 60 cats, the agency is now at capacity and dozens of other agencies have volunteered to take the overflow.
Sadly, some displaced families have decided that caring for a pet is too overwhelming during such a traumatic time. "We have had some animals surrendered from evacuees," Ms. Jordan-Smith said. "It's disheartening, but when people don't have a home, they will do this."
Private companies have kicked in to the rescue effort as well. One picture of a Canadian North flight shared on social media showed dogs riding coach alongside their owners.
Some have been a bit overzealous in their efforts to help stranded animals. On Friday, the RCMP evicted at least two animal rescue volunteers from Fort McMurray who didn't have adequate permission from the municipality.
Stranded pets haven't been entirely neglected. The local animal control agency has staff doing rounds of feeding for some pets, according to Ms. Jordan-Smith.
But back to Atlas the dog. Since Tuesday, Louise had been frantically calling every animal agency in Fort McMurray she could find. The family didn't even know whether their house was still standing.
At 7 a.m. Friday, Louise woke up in her hotel bed to a blinking phone. "My phone was blowing up," she said. "I had messages from all kinds of friends of family and I saw this picture of a lady."
It was one of the rescue volunteers holding Atlas. By Friday afternoon, Atlas was in Edmonton waiting for the family to pick him up.
"I was finally able to breathe. I was like 'Okay, he's not hurt,' " Louise said. "We all cried tears of joy."