For pilot Keith Mann, loading dozens of animals onto his plane in order to evacuate them from the historic Fort McMurray wildfire in Canada was the right thing to do, even if it was against the rules.
Nearly 90,000 people were forced to flee from the wildfire that raged through Alberta last week, in what is likely to be the country's costliest natural disaster. As citizens of Fort McMurray relocated to camps for refuge, many struggled with how to bring along their furry friends. Some were even forced to leave them behind.
The energy company Suncor, which has an airport located northwest of Fort McMurray, offered its planes to fly evacuees south of the blaze. On Tuesday, around 300 citizens showed up at the airport -- with nearly 100 animals in tow.
"The terminal was quite a sight," Mann said. "Just full of animals."
Mann, Suncor’s manager of flight operations, said that he quickly realized the dilemma.
"I didn’t want our personnel to be faced with the decision of whether to separate these people from their pets,” Mann told HuffPost. "So I made the executive decision."
The pets were coming too.
Mann said that they had to bend the rules in order to do what was right, adding that he and most Suncor employees are pet owners. Airlines often set a limit on the number of animals that they can have on board, and what parts of the plane pets occupy.
Mann and flight crews had to be creative in order to transport approximately 10,000 people and 100 animals that needed help. Over the course of about 50 hours, Mann and other pilots gave rides to cats, rabbits, hedgehogs, a chinchilla, frogs and dogs -- including a Great Dane who took a whole seat to himself.
"There were even unconfirmed reports that a pig was on one of the flights," Mann said.
Even with as many as 36 animals of all kinds loaded along with people onto a plane, Mann said that for the most part, the flights were “tranquil.” Flight attendants had to separate two dogs that didn't get along during boarding, seating them in the front and back of the plane. For the sake of the smaller critters on board, two dogs took seats in the plane’s lavatory.
A flight attendant said that passengers were consulting YouTube for tutorials on how to make a muzzle out of a shirt, Mann said.
Mann, who owns a 4-month-old golden retriever, was proud of how they responded. "We did everything we can to keep pets with their owners, and ensure that the flights were safe."
"That’s the Canadian way," Mann said. "We wanted to help."
Suncor is one of several companies that stepped in to help people and pets fleeing the wildfire. Canadian North has been running evacuation flights that have plenty of furry passengers along with human ones, as HuffPost Canada reports.
Even though the worst of the wildfire is over, Fort McMurray residents are unable to return home due to the risk of hot spots flaring up. On Tuesday the fire had grown to 229,000 hectares, but more favorable weather was helping firefighting efforts.