Few people are more passionate about animals than pet owners, a relationship thrown into stark relief by this year’s coronavirus pandemic.
Some workers had to depart the island, and made the gut-wrenching decision to leave their pets behind, unable to take dogs and cats with them on repatriation flights. Local shelters like the Cayman Islands Humane Society took in many of those animals, putting a strain on their already-overflowing accommodations. At the same time, spay-and-neutering programmes had to be put on hold due to COVID restrictions.
It seemed there was no solution to the increase in abandoned pets and stray animals, until Nikole Poirier – a Canadian marine biologist – stepped in to try and help.
Being a pet owner herself, she could not imagine having to leave her “fur babies” behind, not knowing when she would see them again. She also knew that there were empty shelters in Canada that would be happy to take animals looking for forever homes, if only they could be transported there. As Canada had classified pets as non-essential cargo during COVID, it meant they could not travel in the cargo hold of planes. The only way to get them out of Cayman and into Canada was to have them in the main cabin with the passengers. Thus began the Noah’s Ark Project.
Getting the wheels in motion
“The Noah’s Ark Project started as a nickname, between me and friends,” said Poirier. “As the project details began to unfold, I just had this image of all the dogs being walked up the gangway, escaping to safety during a global pandemic that is ravaging the world. It very much reminded me of the biblical narrative.”
With no previous experience in starting such a bold initiative, Poirier went to work, securing a charter plane that would allow passengers to travel with their animals from Cayman to Toronto.
“The first flight was definitely about people that were desperate to stay with their pets,” Poirier explained. “I even returned pets to those who had left on the government repatriation [flight] that did not allow [them].”
She soon realised, however, that these flights could also be used to assist the Humane Society and other pet charity groups like One Dog At A Time and PAWS, which were being challenged by the sheer number of animals needing shelter.
Poirier connected with Canada-based Sunwing Airlines to charter the first Noah’s Ark flight on 22 May. She said that the company has since gone “above and beyond, helping us take large numbers of animals on their planes”.
She also had to get help on the Cayman side, and luckily found people willing to assist with the difficult task.
Help steps in
“Fortunately, Jeff Boucher, the then-Honorary Consul to Canada, and Maria Leng from the Governor’s Office had been managing repatriation flights and they made themselves 100% available to me,” Poirier said. “Even now, Tasha Ebanks-Garcia with the new Travel Cayman team has offered me more support than I could have ever imagined. Dara Flowers Burke and my charter company are superheroes that continue to make the impossible possible, so I have had the best of the best helping me every step of the way.”
Even with all the assistance, embarking on the project was no simple matter. Sunwing allowed 55 animals per flight, and all dogs in the cabin had to be basket-muzzled and sedated to stop things getting out of hand onboard. It was quite the sight for anyone stepping on one of these planes, as there were rows and rows of rescue pups sitting in seats.
Flowers Burke has been working hand-in-hand with local security and customs personnel to make the flights as stress-free as possible for the animals, while the Humane Society’s Claire Leadbetter works tirelessly to have each dog fostered before they travel, so they are ready to be rehomed. She also manages all the relationships with the Canadian rescue partners, the animals’ paperwork and sourcing necessary supplies.
Customs on the Canadian side is a much more complicated business, “because we are not allowed access to the customs team lead in advance”, Poirier explained.
Another challenge that Poirier has faced is finding animal escorts.
“It is always hard to find [them],” she admitted. “So, I offer additional baggage and/or discounted fares to recruit people to escort these animals. I have porters waiting for them at [Owen Roberts International Airport] and [Toronto Pearson International Airport], so they can just focus on the pet and not need to worry about their luggage.
“While this is always a struggle to initiate, everyone writes to me after and says how happy they were to have helped with the project; they fall in love with their little co-passengers.
One of the best parts about escorting a pet on this flight is that, when you exit the airport in Toronto, the families are all there with signs ‘Titus’, ‘Sheldon’, ‘Faith’, ready to bring their new family member home.”
As Poirier became more familiar with the process, she was able to expand the project to help students returning to Canada. After the 22 May flight, there was one on 13 July. On 25 Aug., students boarded as well.
“Given the current restrictions on foreign nationals entering Canada, this was a massive challenge,” Poirier revealed. “All our Caymanian, British, and US students had to go through a pre-screening with CBSA (Canadian Customs), which was facilitated by the High Commission of Canada in Jamaica.”
Raising funds for the COMBI transport
So far, the project has booked three 737-800s and a few small jets, but the next one, on 7 Nov., will be a special COMBI aircraft that will not require escorts like the other flights, as all the animals will be crated. The plane is 50% passenger seats and 50% empty cargo space, and Poirier is hoping to transport 80 animals on this trip. This particular aircraft carries a higher cost than the others – $25,000, to be precise – and so Poirier is trying to raise funds to “get it off the ground”.
You might wonder why someone would go to all this work, when even booking a simple flight for a regular passenger is a hassle with all the requirements and restrictions, but for Poirier, it is all worthwhile to see animals happy and homed.
“It is seeing all the pictures of these animals with their new families in Canada,” she said. “Our ‘Cocomutts’ are running in huge fields, splashing around in lakes, and just living a huge new life.
“Our rescue partners in Canada set up a WhatsApp group for each flight. The families that have rescued our pets post photos of these cats and dogs as they settle into their new lives. Anytime a message pops up from these families, I am nearly in tears to know how loved and cared-for these animals are. It really drives me and my partners to keep pushing forward.”
The fact that shelters in Canada have waitlists for adoptions is another incentive, and by 7 Nov., Poirier and her team will have assisted 300 animals.
She has recently announced a December and January flight, which will coincide with Canada’s new two-day quarantine trial.