Love of animals comes first for these newlyweds who rescue pets from evacuation zones

Dale Christie and Gena Sandli got married June 24, 2017.

FALKLAND - A newlywed husband-and-wife team who rescue animals from wildfire evacuation zones dropped their honeymoon plans for a third time this week, choosing to cross fire lines and take care of evacuees’ horses and chickens instead.

Gena Sandli and Dale Christie, volunteers with the Animal Lifeline Emergency Response Team Society (ALERT) are currently stationed at the rodeo grounds in Falkland, taking care of two horses, 16 chickens and 15 quail. It’s not the romantic, relaxing getaway the longtime animal welfare volunteers were planning, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Falkland couple married June 24, 2017 and have been responding to disasters ever since.

“It was crazy beforehand and has definitely been crazy since,” Sandli says. “Right after we were married, on that weekend we were supposed to go on our honeymoon and it didn’t happen. We started volunteering and helping (with wildfires). Now is our third try, we were actually supposed to leave today… and just have a little bit of rest. Of course, we’re here instead, again.”

They met eight years ago and have been partners ever since. Over the past few weeks, they’ve been working with the rescue society and Canadian Disaster Animal Relief in the Cariboo region to retrieve animals that got left behind, or whose owners have nowhere to keep them during evacuations. Volunteers work with police and only enter areas with express permission and often with an RCMP escort.

“I couldn’t have a nice time (on my honeymoon) if I knew this was going on,” Sandli says. “I’d be pacing. It would drive him crazy…. I would probably cry a lot and wouldn’t be the best date.”

“It’s about the animals. We’ll get to it (honeymoon) eventually,” adds Christie.

Earlier this week, they received permission to cross the fire line and retrieve a horse from the evacuated Paxton Valley area.

“We were right near the fire. It was actually quite scary. It was right behind us,” Sandli says.

Gena Sandli with one of the chickens they picked up from the Paxton Valley.
Gena Sandli with one of the chickens they picked up from the Paxton Valley.

A fearless, “boots on kinda' gal”, Sandli admits that fires scare her. In smoky conditions, it can be hard to see where you’re going and it’s easy to start feeling nervous and claustrophobic, Sandli says.

“Dale is my support, because we go two-by-twos, and you really have to work together as a team. He tends to calm me down a bit,” she says.

They always stick together on the job to keep an eye out for each other — being apart and wondering how the other person was doing would be too tough.

“She’s very hands on and she does a lot,” Christie says. “And sometimes she doesn’t look what’s behind her.”

“That’s exactly why you need two people,” Sandli says with a smile.

It’s emotional, traumatic, and stressful work, which makes having a good support system essential.

“When you finally get some down time there’s a lot of crying,” Sandli says. “We tend to sit and talk to each other and vent. He understands why I wake up screaming in the middle of the night sweated right down. He gets it.”

Aside from a good cry, sharing a sense of humour also keeps them going. Just this week while on a call, Sandli watched her husband and a police officer trying to round up a flock of chickens.

“I look up and they’re all running around because they were free range chickens. It was so smoky, I started to laugh and I couldn’t even breathe….You’ve got the uniform and the cowboy all covered in feathers. It was quite funny. I wish I would’ve videotaped that for a later date,” Sandli says. “The officer assisting was raised on a ranch so between him and Dale they were all very schooled in chicken catching.”

The same chickens are now safely tucked away in the men’s washroom at the Falkland rodeo grounds — a makeshift coop that is working out quite nicely.

“This is the first for this,” Sandli says of chickens in a bathroom.

Meanwhile, they’re on call, ready to head out and cross the fire line for someone’s beloved pet. They could be sitting back with their feet up, celebrating their wedding, but they’d rather be here.

“Now as it stands I don’t even know if we can do it (this year),” Sandli says. “We’re volunteers, we put our own money into it. We might have to wait until next year. And that’s okay too.”

ALERT is looking for donated or loaned items including animal crates, pet fencing, and cat and dog food. Supplies have run low due to many being transported to Kamloops and other areas.

Gena Sandli and Dale Christie run Outbackjacks Horse Rescue in Falkland.
Gena Sandli and Dale Christie run Outbackjacks Horse Rescue in Falkland.

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