Cat Rescue Efforts Continue After Northern California Wildfires

In the midst of thedevastatingwildfires that swept across Northern California last October, heartbreaking storiesof missingpetsemerged. And that’s particularly true in the case of cats — many of whom were outside when their families had to evacuate, or hid, terrified by the chaos. Over the months following the fires, the number of happy endings has slowed, but some dedicated volunteers are still on the case.

In Santa Rosa, which lay at the heart of the firestorm, volunteers are still searching for “fire cats” — those who miraculously managed to find shelter during the worst of the firestorm, and now wander gutted neighborhoods, separated from their human families. People like Shannon Jay, a policeman on sick leave who’s patiently stalking errant felines. Or Jennifer Petruska, whohas taken on cat rescue as a personal mission after herhome miraculouslysurvivedthe fires.

But stalking cats is complicated, and the lessons these generous and kind-heartedrescuers are learning are valuable in other contexts as well. Some of the challenges are legal, while others are social — and sometimes, a well-meaning act can have hidden consequences.

One challenge involves verifying that an apparent stray is actually a stray, rather than just a community cat — whether part of a managed feral colony, or someone’s beloved pet. In some cases, cat rescuers are going out with lists and descriptions, trying to match missing cat reports with specific animals. In other instances, they’re identifying cats around the community that seem to be strays,then checking for tags and contacting neighbors to see if the cat is a known resident.

It’s also illegal to go onto private property and trap a cat, no matter how well-meaning. Cat trappers need consent from property owners — easy to do when a property owner is eager to be reunited with a lost pet, but trickier when strays are hanging out on landwith an unknown owner.

There are also some best practices with respect to trapping, like these circulated by the Sonoma Humane Society, that are important to follow.It takes time to build up trust with strays and successfullycapture them, and the Humane Society stresses that traps should never be left unattended. That can result in long hours in all sorts of weather, patiently waiting for cats to step inside a trap.

Cat rescuers have trapped dozens of cats across Santa Rosa, especially in heavily damaged neighborhoods like Coffey Park. Their work includes responding to requests for help and identifying cats who seem to be in trouble, and then working backwards to see if they can determine wherethe animals belong.

What’s astonishing is just how many cats they’re discovering.Cats, as it turns out, are extremely determined to stay alive. Many managed to eke out shelter from the flames and then support themselves for months outdoors. People who thought that their pets were dead or lost forever are having some joyful reunions, even if they’ve lost everything else.

The coordinated rescue strategy adopted here could work elsewhere in areas impacted bysignificant natural disasters. It’s important that volunteers understand the legal issues at hand, as well as the best way to handle cats who may be injured or frightened. Animal rescuers should have backing from local veterinarians or animal welfare organizations who can handle sheltering, vet care and other specialized needs that may arise.

For cat people, watching the aftermath of the fires should provide some other lessons: Microchipping is the best way to be reunited with your pet, but the information on file has to be current — so double check if you’re not sure. Having a collar and tags can also be very helpful, as strangers may not think to bring in an animal for a microchip scan. Consider adding an out-of-area number as a secondary contact; if telecommunications are damaged or your phone is shut off for some reason, rescuers can still have a backup person to call.

Keeping cats indoors can also help prevent tragedy — no wondering where Fluffy is when the call to evacuate comes, and no scared cats hiding when you want to bring them in. Indoor cats tend to live longer, with fewer health problems, and there are other benefitstoo. Finally, consider leaving a carrier out so cats think of it as part of the household landscape — or even a safe place. That way, if you do need to flee in a hurry, it’s easy to scoop your cats up and go.

You can contact firepetsrecovery@gmail.com if you have a missing cat — or dog, or other animal — who hasn’t been located after the fires. Sonoma County Animal services is also maintaining a lost and found page that is regularly updated. Be aware that if your pet isn’t featured, you may want to call, as the shelter doesn’t provide listings for animals getting medical care or those who arrive deceased. Also be aware that the shelter has a four-day impound period. After that time, strays may be euthanized, transferred to other organizations, put into foster care or adopted.

Photo Credit: PROKai Schreiber/Flickr

63 comments

Renata B
Renata B4 days ago

I am already against leaving cats free to wonder outdoors because it is too dangerous: you don't allow a toddler, you don't even allow your dog, why a cat should be less at risk? But to leave them out when disaster strikes is CRIMINAL.

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Marie W
Marie W2 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe8 months ago

Shannon Jay and Jennifer Petruska are angels. Thank you for helping them!!

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Nena C
Nena C8 months ago

Cudos to all who continue to help these poor sweet critters!

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M s
M s8 months ago

Microchipping is the best way to be reunited with your pet, but the information on file has to be current — so double check if you’re not sure. Having a collar and tags can also be very helpful, as strangers may not think to bring in an animal for a microchip scan. microchipping is NOT expensive I dont understand why people dont do it

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Rita Odessa
Rita Delfing8 months ago

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the folks trying to reunite felines with their humans, so easy feat. tattoo's, microchips, collars with give (snap off collars are crap) licenses, tags with name and phone number are all very important you can never tell when something like this comes up.

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Catherine Z
Catherine Z8 months ago

Please don't give up trying to reunite animals with their families

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Berenice Guedes d

May you all who work to rescue these traumatised animals being blessed for your efforts to save ltheir lives!!

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Isa J
Isa JOSSERAND HURE8 months ago

Thank you

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Rosslyn O
Rosslyn O8 months ago

God bless you to the moon and back for not giving up on these fire victims. So traumatised some will stay elusive for months before trusting anything again, so I understand your plight. I thank you on every lost animals behalf!

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