|Last Chance Cat Ranch founder Elizabeth Ginn greets one of the rescued cats being cared for at the Family Pet Hospital Wednesday after fire destroyed her home the day before. Herald photo by Ian Martens|
An emotional Elizabeth Ginn had tears in her eyes Wednesday.
She said she didn't care about losing her house and her possessions in Tuesday's fire.
To her, it was about the condition of her beloved cats.
Ginn's home, which was destroyed by fire just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday, was also the primary facility for The Last Chance Cat Ranch and her efforts have helped save more than 2,500 abandoned cats in the past 10 years.
"This has totally devastated me," Ginn said, steps away from the charred remains of her home.
"As people know, who've adopted from us and surrendered cats to us, my house was the main foster home; I had all the old ones there. Some of them were 18 and 20 years old," she said.
"These were all the old cats that people abandoned and didn't want anymore. A lot of them couldn't get out. The ones that I loved that would come to greet everyday when I came home. I'm just grieving so much."
Ginn, who had lived in the house for nearly nine years, said more than 60 cats were inside at the time. Her son was at home at the time of the fire and opened the front door and windows to allow as many out as possible before escaping himself unharmed.
As of Wednesday morning, thanks to additional efforts by the Lethbridge Fire Department and the City of Lethbridge's department of animal services special response team, staff at Family Pet Hospital were treating 28 cats for various injuries. Three more were brought in by late afternoon.
But eight of the 31 cats were in critical condition and Dr. Kate Lupton said the next 24 hours would be crucial for their survival.
"A lot of them are OK. The more severe ones have pretty bad facial burns. The fire and the heat caused ulcers in their eyes; their ear tips are burnt off; their paw pads are burnt off; smoke inhalation; and lung damage," she said, adding she hasn't seen an animal rescue of this magnitude before.
"It's a huge undertaking - 28 cats is a lot of resources. We are very overrun. We've had several staff members come in voluntarily today to help us out."
Approximately $200,000 damage occurred between Ginn's house and minor smoke and heat damage to the two neighbouring properties.
Fire investigators have yet to determine a cause, but said the blaze likely began upstairs.
"Through witness statements, it looks like the origin of the fire was in the attic space," said fire investigator Heath Wright, adding the doors and windows Ginn's son opened to help save numerous animals also had the unfortunate side effect of speeding the rate of fire.
"He tried to vacate as soon as possible but tried to get as many animals out as possible. I commend him for that."
"One of the reasons we believe that fire progressed so quickly was that it had a great deal of oxygen coming in with the open windows and doors," said fire chief Brian Cornforth. "That's what drove that fire so intense so fast."
Cornforth also praised the efforts of his 23 firefighters on scene.
"We did what we could to help free some of the animals that were trapped inside the structure," he said.
"And they did a phenomenal job at protecting the neighbouring two properties. It was a very, very hard fight. We did end up transporting one firefighter to hospital from exhaustion and there was one person treated at the scene for smoke inhalation."
Duane Ens, the City of Lethbridge's regulatory services manager whose department manages the animal shelter, sent out further personnel with 10 traps to determine if there was any other injured cats still in the area on Wednesday.
"When they are released from the Family Pet Hospital, it's my understanding that a lot of caring individuals are going to take care of these pets," Ens said.
"Obviously the City is also prepared to take these pets in if there aren't enough foster homes. We have lots of space at the shelter and we will assist in whatever way we can."
The local Canadian Red Cross Personal Disaster Assistance Team assisted four adults and four children displaced by the fire. They are providing those affected with emergency food, accommodation and medication at no charge for 72 hours.
People can, however, donate to the Red Cross through a variety of ways and donations for the associated costs with pet care, and to help The Last Chance Cat Ranch, are also being accepted at numerous city establishments including: Family Pet Hospital; the Lethbridge PAW Society; Park UR Paws; Pet Valu; and a collaboration between CJOC-FM and 1st Choice Savings.
Ginn also wanted to urge people to act responsibly when they make a commitment to owning a pet.
"I'm asking people: please look after your cats," she said.
"Don't let them outside where it's not safe. Love them and stop abandoning."