Hwy 8, the route between Merritt and Spences Bridge, was so heavily damaged by the Nicola river during extensive flooding on Nov. 15 it was declared a near complete loss. Complicating matters further were the residents stuck on small islands of remaining highway, several of whom watched their houses swallowed by the raging torrents. 

Facing a choice to be possibly swept away or to evacuate to high ground, two families had to make the heartbreaking decision to get themselves to safety and leave their animals behind. In the days that followed, the situation became dire as it was soon clear that there was no feasible way to reach or rescue the pets and livestock that remained stranded.

When Kelly Kennedy, owner of Sageview Rescue Centre in Kamloops, heard of the situation from livestock RCMP officer, Corey Lepine, she immediately began to explore rescue scenarios. Unfortunately, she too soon realized that there were no conventional options to get in and get the animals out.

“There was no way to get the horses off of that stretch of road,” explained Kennedy.

“So, I just decided to rent a helicopter and try to do an air evacuation.” 

Although very experienced with horse rescue from wildfire situations, something Sageview does frequently, Kennedy wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to evacuating livestock by helicopter. 

“We rescue a lot of livestock from fires at Sageview, and so we’re pretty used to dealing with all of that, but there has never been an air evacuation of a horse in western Canada before, with a helicopter,” said Kennedy.

A Director for Horse Council BC (HCBC), Kennedy reached out to see if they would be able to assist, which they did, readily. A livestock sling was flown up from Vancouver on Thursday, Nov. 18 evening and utilized for the operation on Friday.

“Horse Council of BC paid for the helicopter ride, which worked out because I’d already rented it,” said Kennedy. 

“We had gone over every which way we could get those animals out of there and you could not walk them out because they were right at the base of cliffs. I ended up taking two feed bags over, big fertilizer totes, because I was guessing that the two mini horses wouldn’t fit in the big sling, and sure enough they didn’t. So, we sedated the two little minies, and put them in the bag and put them in the helicopters big cargo net, and that’s how we got them out.”

When it came time to load the full sized horse, however, the rescue group encountered a problem. No one knew how the sling worked. 

“We sedated the big horse, but by the time we all figured out how to put his big sling on he’d woken up,” said Kennedy. 

“So when we went to land he was wide awake.Nobody even thought of what to do if the horse was awake, because when the boys were putting the harness on him, he was out cold. And then as soon as they lifted him up, he woke up.” 

Sara Walkem, a Spences Bridge resident who assisted with the rescue effort, which saw the animals offloaded near her home, said that the horse, named Winter, “hit the ground running”. 

Despite the complications, everyone was delivered to Spences Bridge safely, including a kennel full of puppies. With the success of this rescue under her belt, Kennedy decided to attempt another. Returning to the same area of Hwy 8, Kennedy made plans to airlift a pregnant Jersey cow named Tina and three goats. 

“We didn’t know how we were going to get her (Tina) because we had nothing to lift her in,” said Kennedy. 

“She wouldn’t fit in the sling, so we ended up just getting her to walk on top of the cargo net, and we just pulled the cargo net up and the helicopter took off, and it worked perfect.”

The goats were transported inside of the helicopter alongside the passengers. 

“The outcome if we hadn’t of rescued them, wouldn’t have been good,” said Kennedy. 

“They would have been put down so they didn’t have to starve, that was their only fate. The thing to do would have been to put them down, because there’s no other way to get them out of there. And if the river gave away any more, well they were just on a little piece of road.” 

The helicopter, as part of the rescue operations, also made a detour to retrieve a stranded family, who then made it safely to Cache Creek. 

“It all worked out, we couldn’t have asked for anything different because nobody got hurt and two families got all their pets back,” said Kennedy, who currently has the horses at Sageview.

“It wouldn’t have happened if Horse Council hadn’t stepped up. We could not have rented a helicopter to do this on our own. We got really lucky. And what makes that work is everybody that donates to the Horse Council disaster fund, that’s what gets us through the fire season. Horse Council provides all of the aid.” 

The HCBC Animal Disaster Relief Fund can be found here: https://hcbc.ca/2021/07/13/donate-to-horse-council-bcs-animal-disaster-relief-fund/ .