Longhaul hope for displaced animals

by Steven Macleod

EDMONTON, Alta. – During the first weekend in March, Heather Petersen had a unique opportunity to combine two of her passions in life: trucking and animals.

As well as being a professional truck driver based in Edmonton, Petersen doubles as the president of Safe Haven Animal Rescue.

Just seven months into her new career as a trucker, Petersen secured her single-axle Freightliner to a 53-foot trailer, on loan from her employer at Rosenau Transport, and headed to Montana to pick up a number of animals left without homes due to Hurricane Katrina. The 36 dogs and eight cats to be picked up were quite a change from the usual freight Petersen is accustomed to hauling.

“My big concern was making sure they were warm. I had the reefer a bit warmer than normal, usually keep it at 40 F but we had it up to 55,” Petersen explained. “You worry about the animals with every bump you go over.”

Besides surviving one of the worst natural disasters in American history, the displaced animals have been on a lengthy journey spending nearly a week travelling on trucks.

As the carnage of Hurricane Katrina began in August of last year, it soon became the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in the U.S. in more than 75 years and more than doubled the damage done by any other hurricane on American soil. Amongst all the people and landmarks destroyed by the hurricane, were a number of animals left destitute by the storm.

An exact number of the animals affected by the storm is difficult to pin down when factoring in livestock and wildlife, but just two weeks into the clean-up the Humane Society of the United States and other agencies had rescued more than 5,000 abandoned animals, including about 2,800 dogs and cats. The society pledged around $20 million to the disaster-stricken area and helped establish a number of animal shelters.

All of Petersen’s new friends had been living at an animal refugee camp in Mississippi, called Tylertown. The tented shelter was closed on March 2 and all the animals headed to animal rescue agencies around the continent.

“It was the last shipment of animals to leave Mississippi. There were so many animals to be placed with rescuers and they knew we would take whatever we could, so they left us until the end,” said Petersen. “The truck that brought the animals north to where we were to pick them up made a stop in North Dakota and I believe they stopped in Utah as well.”

After seeing an advertisement on the Internet, Petersen and Anne Wylie, vice-president of Safe Haven Animal Rescue, decided to aid in finding homes for the displaced animals of Hurricane Katrina. The lengthy process began in mid-December and finally came to a head this spring.

The ladies left Edmonton on March 5 and headed to the border town of Sweetgrass, Mont. where they were to pick up the master-less pets. But the trip would not be without its challenges.

The two rescuers ended up spending more time than they bargained for at the border, as certification of the animals was delayed. A helping hand from a few other delayed truckers helped Petersen put a positive spin on her border experience.

“A couple of trucks from Mullen Transportation were also held up at the border because their papers had been lost,” said Petersen. “They were really nice, one guy in particular, and he helped us transfer the animals into the truck.”

The drive home held a few surprises as well. Unbeknownst to the chauffeurs, one of the cats was pregnant and the troupe arrived home in Edmonton five cats richer.

“On the way home one of the cats gave birth and we had to stop in Lethbridge to deal with it,” stated Petersen. “We had to get proper supplies and get the kittens in the cab to keep them warm.”

The convoy stopped one more time in Red Deer to deliver six dogs to another animal rescue organization, before arriving home in Edmonton and dispersing the animals to a number of different kennels. Safe Haven Animal Rescue works on a foster home system and all the rescued animals will live in temporary homes until appropriate permanent homes can be found.

The response to adopting these homeless animals was immediate.

“It’s been a very positive response with a lot of interest shown,” Petersen said. “On the way down we put my phone straight to voicemail and just checked it every so often and wrote down the messages. Now we have about three and a half pages of messages written down.”

Petersen’s love for animals starts in her own backyard. She is the proud owner of four dogs and five cats. About six years ago she started off as a foster home with another organization. At her own initiative she moved up in the ranks, eventually becoming president, with Wylie working as vice-president.

The Safe Haven Animal Rescue was established by Petersen two years ago this August and Wylie joined in a year after.

“We knew what to do, we knew how to do it and decided to start our own organization and were incorporated in November,” explained Petersen. “We run our organization strictly with the animal’s best interests in mind.”

Her love affair with animals stretches back a few years longer than her love for trucking, but Petersen is making the most of the opportunity.

“I drove with him for two weeks as his passenger and then took all the tests within a week.”

“I love it, I really do,” she continued. “Considering I was a stay-at-home mom for 13 years and worked as a legal secretary for eight years before, it’s quite a change.”

Despite the unexpected challenges during Petersen’s journey from Edmonton to Montana and back again, she said the experience is well worth the trip.

“I was asked, knowing now would you do it again, and the answer is of course we would. But I’d be asking a lot more questions and checking things with each department at the border,” Petersen said. “You have to make sure you talk to as many people as you can on both sides, it is not as easy as it sounded. If anybody has the chance to do what we just did, it’s worth it.”

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