Nemo, a tiny tabby, disappeared for 87 days amid the chaos of the Northern California wildfires in October 2017. He and many other cats went missing when thousands of residents fled Sonoma County as the blazes lit up homes and businesses. Just a few days into the new year, Nemo was reunited with his family.
“I ended up losing everything in the fire, but the biggest pain was that we didn’t have Nemo with us,” says Claudia Meglin, Nemo’s owner. “Evacuating without him was one of the hardest things I had to do. Now we’re back together, and I almost can’t believe it.”
Outcast Cat Help (OCH), a local animal welfare organization dedicated to reuniting cats and families displaced by the fires, found Nemo, Meglin says. But it took perseverance to capture him.
Meglin says she and her husband thought they had spotted Nemo on their old property following the fire, but after three weeks of failed attempts to trap him, they were losing hope. Frustrated and desperate, they reached out to local rescue Forgotten Felines, which connected them to OCH. OCH volunteers responded swiftly and set up a humane trap in the area. Just a couple days later, Nemo was caught. Now he is safe and sound.
“It has been so traumatic and difficult, but receiving so much support from Outcast Cat Help and the community has been amazing,” says Meglin. “It’s good to know that we’re all in it together and helping each other. It’s been a fantastic experience.”
Alley Cat Allies is proud to support OCH with a grant to fund their lifesaving work to find missing cats through their “Last Responder” initiative. Since the fires began, OCH has supported local shelters with supplies and set up feeding stations and trail cameras to catch sightings of displaced cats all over the Glen Ellen and Kenwood areas. OCH has also provided organized trapping to catch those cats—an expertise gained through the Return to Field (RTF) program the group developed and implemented in Contra Costa in 2014, and that Contra Costa Animal Services took over in February 2017.
“Alley Cat Allies’ grant allowed us to feel confident in having extra resources to expand our outreach to find cats we suspect survived and just haven’t found,” says Julie Linford, director and founder of OCH. “We’ve purchased many more cameras and feeding station setups to support the capture of these cats. With that help, we can bring even more families back together.”
Linford, who volunteered with Alley Cat Allies during our Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in 2005, has communicated with dozens of people searching for their cats in the wake of the fires—a long and complicated process that continues months later. OCH has reunited 10 cats and helped facilitate the capture of dozens more in the Santa Rosa area.
“Cats so often slip through the cracks of animal rescue because, if scared, they will usually hide. So it takes unique processes to find and capture them,” says Linford. “A lot of it is about the support and encouragement; to keep hope. And I think that many are relieved to have that, when faced with so many challenges from the fires.”
On Dec. 2, some 55 days after orange tabby Sebastian disappeared from his owner Coreen Allen’s Glen Ellen property, they were reunited through the ingenuity of OCH. Allen and her family were on vacation when the fires began. When they discovered that their home had burned down, the first thing Allen thought about was Sebastian. After weeks of checking her destroyed property, and then local shelters for Sebastian, Allen began to suspect the worst.
“Hope was there, but two months later, we began to really wonder if Sebastian was gone,” Allen says. “Then, Julie [Linford] reached out to us on Facebook and offered to help. That was all it took.”
OCH set up a trail camera near the Allens’ property and, after carefully monitoring for days, saw the first sign of Sebastian. Volunteers set up a humane trap in the area and Sebastian was caught, skinnier than usual but unharmed. Allen, overwhelmed and crying, rushed over to pick up her cat. Finally, she and her husband Jason could tell their two-year-old son, Hunter, that Sebastian was home.
“It’s really an amazing story. I’ve pinched myself every day since Sebastian got home,” said Allen. “I’m so grateful to everyone who contributed in having him come back. It was definitely a team effort.”
Among other reunions was the story of Frankie, a cat who went missing from the Santa Rosa home his family evacuated to when their own property was destroyed. For two months, his owner Stephanie McClernan and her daughter Kelly posted flyers and asked around on social media but with no success.
Stephanie was considering giving up and adopting a new cat. As a last resort, the family decided to connect with OCH. From then on, OCH provided guidance and encouragement until the family finally got their first tip about Frankie in December. Eight days later, Kelly found and coaxed Frankie out of a storm drain and back into her arms.
These stories continue to unfold and prove to those still recovering from the fires that hope is alive, even now, three months later. OCH still has a lot of work to do. The group has 42 missing cat cases it’s pursuing while volunteers plan to conduct “Kitty Search 101” trainings to empower citizens to find their lost cats.
Alley Cat Allies will continue to support OCH’s efforts and the affected citizens of Northern California for as long as we are needed. We look forward to helping create more happy endings.