Shelter provides care for animal fire refugees

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By Emile Hallez

Fleeing on a moment’s notice from her home on Pleasant Park Road was taxing enough for Conifer resident Tracy McCandless. But the task of relocating five horses and a cat caused her stress level to rise exponentially.


Fortunately for McCandless and numerous other residents, volunteer teams of animal rescuers were prepared to help evacuate animals in the midst of the deadly Lower North Fork Fire.

“It’s nothing you can be prepared for. I left my house without a credit card and ended up sleeping in my truck the first night, because I couldn’t check into a hotel, and you can’t get back into your house,” said McCandless, who with the help of volunteers from the Jefferson County Horse Evacuation Assistance Team transferred her horses to the Jeffco Fairgrounds. “It’s really hard to get information. … You’re just completely cut off from everything,” she added about not being allowed to return home for several days.

With almost immediate help, loading the horses onto trailers was an efficient process, she said.

“I have five horses and a two-horse trailer. I told the sheriff that I wouldn’t mind some help. Within five minutes one of their volunteers showed up at my house,” McCandless said. “We had all five horses loaded in a matter of minutes. … They knew what they were doing.”

Among the 900 homes that were evacuated at the peak of the blaze, 28 structures were destroyed. McCandless’ house was spared, and she had returned home by the week’s end. Nonetheless, she waited to retrieve her horses until the weekend’s predicted high winds abated.

“It’s a huge weight lifted to know that your house is all right, but at the same time it’s a bit of a struggle, because you want to make sure your horses and pets are taken care of,” she said.

Taking care of her 18-pound cat, Sasquatch, who has diabetes, were workers at Foothills Animal Shelter, who provided insulin injections every 12 hours and a thorough physical examination.

“I brought him when I brought the horses to the Jefferson County Fairgrounds,” McCandless said. “It was at least midnight when I showed up. … They were still there waiting for people to bring animals in at such a horrible late hour.”

But a diabetic cat was only a small part of the shelter’s sporadic workload. From 12 pet owners, Foothills took in 65 critters, including four salamanders, nine koi fish, 21 chickens, five geese and 26 cats and dogs. As of Monday all but the 21 chickens had been returned to their homes.

“We have folks on board who are familiar with poultry standards,” said Foothills’ spokeswoman, Jennifer Strickland. “It’s not the first time we’ve had chickens. We were prepared for it.”

Outside, along the shelter’s north wall, sat four wire enclosures normally occupied by adoptable dogs. Under plastic tarps draped over the top to block the sun, about 10 chickens paced, pecking for grain through a thin layer of straw. In an enclosure adjacent to them, five white geese took turns splashing and tossing their beaks in a turquoise children’s pool.

Brought in with the chickens and geese from the same owner were seven large mutts, most of which were sled dogs.

“We’re really glad that we’re able to help pet owners who were affected by the fire,” Strickland said. “They were very relieved that they didn’t have to worry about the care of the animals.”

The number of fire evacuees was the largest in the new shelter’s history, if not that of the organization. Nonetheless, Foothills was not strained for space, Strickland said.

And McCandless was indeed relieved to have space for her special-needs cat and five horses, three of whom she recently adopted. The animals usually roam over more than 35 acres she shares with her parents, who live next to her.

“They’re more pasture ornaments. … Three of them are rescue horses that I’ve taken in over the last few years,” she said, noting that one is a 30-year-old retired racing horse. “I think he was on his way to the dog-food factory or the auction. I thought he was cute. … The other two were being starved to death in a field last year, and I came and got them.”

Though McCandless was not looking forward to the process of moving her horses back to her property up the hill, having them cared for during a disaster gave her piece of mind, she said.

“I wish all the happy warm thoughts you can think of toward them,” she said of Foothills and the fairgrounds staff. “It’s such a relief knowing you don’t have to worry.”


Contact Emile Hallez at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22.