When I found Brutus, he had severe burns on all four feet, along with his ears and tail. After the 2017 Tubbs Wildfire in Sonoma County, California, he had spent 26 days alone. Brutus and his sister Cleo, whom I rescued 10 days later, were adopted by a close friend when the owners couldn’t take them back. They are both healthy and live on an estate nearby, where I sometimes visit them.
The forest fires that ravaged the northwestern United States in recent years have destroyed homes and structures, stolen human souls, and displaced thousands of animals. As a law enforcement officer, I not only witnessed the devastation firsthand, but also worked on developing a system to rescue and reunite fire cats. Here’s what I learned:
Don’t give up looking for devastating cats
Cats really have what it takes to survive these infernos. They are tough and can do without water for a long time. After the 2018 campfire in Paradise, California, I rescued approximately 150 fire cats and reunited more than 50 with their families.
When people are evacuated from forest fire zones, it takes time, sometimes weeks, to regain access. They occasionally find kittens living in the rubble or standing in the driveway when they arrive, but this is rare. Many cats are difficult to find, but while they run a distance to escape flames, they often return to their home areas. They have internal compasses that are scary, and even if the entire neighborhood is gone, they can be around. I rescued a fire cat named “Chester” in the campfire last year. He survived (with a little help) 224 days before I could finally save him and reunite him with his family.
Connected: How to protect your cat during forest fires
Fire cats are evicted, frightened, and their behavior changes dramatically. They are afraid of everything and everyone, including their owner. It is important that you do not assume that your own cat or a target cat that you are helping to find and rescue is missing simply because you have called and searched many times.
Look for cats that are driven away by forest fires at night
When I look for fire cats, I do this late at night when everything is quiet. I use a powerful flashlight to quietly search for houses and properties. When I see a cat I call it to see if it comes, but if it doesn’t, I don’t get too close as the cat may run away.
The best way to get cats back in is with food and water. Canned mackerel work wonderfully. I use the juice of the mackerel to soak cut rags that hang over the eating areas as it will spread the scent for a long distance. I put bowls of wet / dry snacks near the rags soaked with mackerel along with bowls of water. Fire cats often don’t like being outdoors, so I place feeding stations along borders, walls, fences, and near trees.
In the evening before dark, I keep coming back to an estate to place fresh food and water. It can take days or even weeks for the kittens to emerge.
A rear camera or game camera is an important tool to set up near the food station. An invisible beam is used which causes the camera to take video and pictures when an animal moves across the beam. The cameras help me find and identify kittens and see where they come and go.
If I find your kitten or any other target kitten on camera, do the same routine for a couple of nights so they get used to coming to eat. I want to try to get kitty into a pattern when it comes to catching. Often times they arrive at a specific time each evening, but sometimes it’s random. I take note of which direction they are coming from and which direction they are leaving. When the cameras are set to video mode, note how the cat behaves at the feeding station. Does it drop its head for a few seconds to eat and then reappear to look around, or does it seem more relaxed? How long does it stay? These observations tell me a cat’s current state of mind, whether it is hypervigilant and nervous or more relaxed. The hyper-alert cat will be much harder to rescue. Another obvious sign is the cat hitting the ground.
Connected: Heart problems in feline wildfire victims
Once I have a few days with a consistent pattern, it’s time to prepare for the trap. I put the trap near the food station, but I don’t set it or put food in it. This should be in place for a night, maybe two, and get the fire cat used to the presence of something that wasn’t there before. I will often withhold food for one night before planning to set the trap for real. It will often trap an otherwise cautious cat. Once the trap is set, it is important that you try to keep something around and check the trap regularly. I wear a towel or blanket, and if the kitten is in a trap, gently cover it with a towel so it will calm the kitten.
Once the cats are rescued, the incredibly difficult and complicated rescue effort begins. The fires I worked on volunteered databases that families could use to list their missing cats. Once a fire cat is rescued, it is listed in the databases and “matchers” try to find their families.
Many of the fiery cats I rescued had families that were previously identified. They were immediately reunited unless Kitty was injured. In this case, I immediately transported her to the local emergency veterinary clinic for treatment.
In the event that there was no match at that point, the cats were listed in databases and cared for by volunteers or in animal shelters. If a family did not step forward, the homeless fiery cats were adopted with the provision that the adopter agreed to reunite kittens with them if the original family was identified.
Lots and lots of fire cats were adopted in the fires I worked on. In fact, there are currently nine fiery cats living in my home that I rescued and adopted when families were not found or whose families could not take them back due to homelessness or in situations where they simply could not have them.
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