As the Fort McMurray wildfire raged and people fled, Keith Mann vowed to leave no man, dog or chinchilla behind.
So the Suncor Energy pilot broke the rules and welcomed more than 40 critters aboard flights heading south to Edmonton and Calgary.
Mann estimates his Suncor plane, along with other chartered companies, helped evacuate 10,000 people from Fort McMurray, where the out-of-control inferno rained fire and embers down from the sky and destroyed 2,500 buildings.
But Mann also helped dozens of furry friends to safety, too.
“I can tell you where I work, we’re all animal lovers,” Mann told The Daily Beast. “We all love dogs. I could totally understand why you can’t separate with your pet. I would have a hard time myself.”
After the inferno swept the Alberta city on May 3, residents were banned from re-entering and some were forced to leave without their pets. Mann was one aviator who helped reunite them, according to the Toronto Star, which first revealed the mile-high menagerie.
Last week, Mann learned of 300 citizens being housed in a lodge near the fire-ravaged city. His company arranged for the evacuees to be bused about 70 miles northwest to Suncor Energy’s airport, where they’d then be flown to shelters.
The refugees came with dozens of fuzzy, prickly and four-legged companions. Mann told The Daily Beast he figured people would bring a handful of pets. The pilot had no clue he’d soon navigate a zoo in the sky.
“Normally you’re only allowed so many pets on an airplane,” Mann said. “But it became abundantly clear it wasn’t going to work. If people would refuse to get on the airplane and evacuate … it became a safety issue.”
Mann told flight crews “to take as many pets as they want, as long as it was comfortable and safe to do so.”
One of the hour-long flights on Suncor’s 90-seat Bombardier CRJ included at least 36 animal passengers, Mann said.
The flyers included rabbits, a family of hedgehogs and chinchillas, a 200-pound Great Dane, other pooches, cats, and fish.
To keep all travelers happy, two dogs had to be kept in the bathroom so they wouldn’t turn smaller pets into chew toys.
Two canines from the same family curled up together and didn’t move, instead opting to snuggle the entire flight.
Some tail-waggers even got the first-class treatment. Staff tried to make a mammoth Great Dane lie down on the floor, but he crawled onto a seat and wouldn’t budge.
“He displaced a passenger, actually,” Mann said.
All animal aviators were calm until landing, when they greeted crews with happy barks on the ground, Mann said.
The pets were either traveling with their humans, or would be reunited with them once they reached Edmonton and Calgary shelters.
“The majority of them had their owners with them. There were a few people that took dogs on behalf of their owners,” Mann said. “When we got to our destinations, none were unclaimed.”
Meanwhile, the Fort McMurray SPCA joined other volunteer groups to rescue more 244 pets in 96 hours. The animals were sent to Edmonton on May 8, Fort McMurray Today reported.
Other residents went rogue to rescue stranded animals, ignoring evacuation orders and smashing windows to check buildings for pets.
Wyatt Colquhoun-Rivard and fellow members of the Western Canadian Powerstrokes, a Ford truck enthusiast group, rescued one woman’s five dogs and three cats, CBC News reported.
“It was a spur of the moment thing,” Colquhoun-Rivard told CBC. “And we just decided not to sit around anymore. We said, ‘Let’s go save some pets…We went rogue.’”