Fire Cat Rescue and Recovery – FieldHaven Best Practices
On November 8, 2018, the town of Paradise, California burned to the ground in the costliest and most deadly fire in the history of the United States at that time.
86 families mourned lives lost, many more were injured and continue to heal, most were wiped out financially and found themselves homeless in an instant, and the total cost of the physical destruction ran into the billions.
The animal family members of Paradise and Magalia suffered as well. The timing of the fire (late morning/early afternoon) meant that so many were at home alone without hope of rescue as the fire tore through the town and desperate, heartbroken owners were unable to get back or find terrified pets as they ran for their lives.
The sheer magnitude of this disaster is hard to imagine if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes. “Paradise Strong” became the rally cry for national and local rescue groups, thousands of volunteers and an international community of people who jumped in to help in ways we never imagined possible.
Social media, often maligned, found its purpose as the smoke cleared and reality set in. Thousands of desperate pet owners, unable to return to the burn zone for several weeks, turned to the organized animal rescue effort for help and found a growing community already there and working to find, rescue and care for their pets.
No one is sure of the final numbers of lost pets but we do know that this incredible response effort led to the rescue of thousands, which ultimately brought comfort and a little joy to a community that has lost so much. FieldHaven Feline Center was on mission to help from day one of the fire. For over seven months we operated two temporary shelters, one right in the town of Paradise. Partnering with trappers and rescuers we engaged the local community to volunteer, many of whom were owners searching for their own lost cats. From an intricate system of hundreds of feeding stations to trapping to sheltering to matching recovered cats with reports of lost cats, hundreds of people both onsite and online from the east coast to Hawaii worked to reunite cats with their owners.
The experience gained and the love shown from far corners, is an incredible tale and a most powerful learning opportunity for organizations who may one day find themselves faced with a significant disaster response. FieldHaven was in a unique position to chronicle the response, measure both the successes and failures, and we are always enthusiastic to share what we learned.
Together we are stronger, smarter and save more animals than we could alone.
Following is a general outline of FieldHaven’s approach to recovery for fire cats. This is far from comprehensive but will highlight the key points of fire cat rescue and recovery. During each phase of recovery access to veterinary care is essential.
There are four phases of fire cat recovery:
Rescue – this is the process of trapping cats in the fire zone. I am not focusing on the rescue phase in this document. There are trappers that have far more experience than I in this area. I recommend following the guidelines and training done by Shannon Jay of Forestville, CA.
While FieldHaven has many very experienced staff and volunteer trappers and disaster-area coordinators, our primary area of focus is fire cat recovery and triage/outcomes. This is not intended to minimize the importance of the rescue efforts. Frankly, just the opposite. Rescuing cats from a fire – or any disaster – zone is highly specialized. It is far different from normal TNR trapping for many reasons.
We often hear from rescuers in fire zones that they don’t see any cats so the assumption is there are very few cats left alive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once darkness falls, cats pour out into the open from their hiding spaces. There are always cats, a lot of cats, who survive fires, many physically unscathed.
Assessment – once the cat is brought in from the fire zone the cat goes through a brief intake process and then an initial assessment period. The assessment period can last from one to seven days, sometimes longer.
Intake of fire cats is very different from TNR. In a TNR scenario, we want to move the cat through the process quickly and get them back out to their ‘hood. In recovery we slow everything to a crawl. These cats have been traumatized for days or weeks. We must take a very different approach to integrating them into the recovery process.
Intake is part of the assessment process. A careful intake is done which is different from a normal shelter intake. Every cat receives the same intake regardless of behavior status – feral or friendly. We have developed feral handling and intake techniques that are minimally stressful for the cat and safe for the humans.
Once the cat has been intaked it is moved to a cage that is set up to provide a safe environment for the cat to begin to “decompress” after the harrowing experience it has been through. Over the next several days there are guidelines for observing and caring for the cat. Data is collected on the cat’s behavior and reactions to specific stimuli. Each cat is different in how much time is taken for the assessment period.
It is critical to not label a cat as feral during the assessment phase. The friendliest of cats can exhibit classic feral behavior when first recovered. It may take days or more for social behavior to slowly emerge. No assumptions should be made to label a cat as feral upon initial intake. The cat could be someone’s beloved pet who is suffering from the trauma of the disaster and prolonged time in the fire zone.
Recovery – this is the time it takes the cat to recover from the experience of the time in the fire zone, both during the fire and the aftermath. Recovery overlaps with assessment as the two phases merge into each other. The recovery time varies from cat to cat as the cat starts to respond – or not respond – to behavior challenges. Just as the time varies, the recovery plan is also variable in each cat. During the recovery time staff and volunteers record many details on each cat. “Progress” is not a word we use during recovery. It is learning what the cat’s behavior was prior to the fire.
Triage – this is the outcome; where and when do cats move on from the recovery center. The most hoped for outcome is reunification with their family. Other outcomes can include adoption, and for ferals, relocation and return to location (TNR). The last two are the longest and most resource consuming outcomes.
Recovery and triage have great variability between cats. Some cats may take just a week or two; others may take many weeks. Fire cat recovery is usually not a short process. But with each day of recovery, we are triaging towards the eventual outcome for the cat.
Our most joyous outcome for any cat is to be reunited with their human family. In the absence of a microchip, we must rely on characteristics of appearance, conformation, and behavior to match them back with their families. Behavior is the characteristic least used when matching recovered cats with missing cats. Behavior is often different, we most often rely on coloring and marking although they can be challenging as well. Think of how many black cats with no markings or cats whose fur is so burnt or singed their color is unrecognizable. Conformation and oral and nasal pigmentation often give cats distinction. A coloring in the mouth, a nose freckle, a kink in the tail – these are just of few of the characteristics that have made for a successful reunion. If a cat is not reunited and all efforts to find that cat’s family are exhausted, then we must move on to other outcomes. With adoption being the most logical of outcomes but we must be cautious not to give up on reuniting too soon. Adopters must be coached on how to carefully introduce the fire cat to their home. There are certain considerations they should be made aware of such PTSD and potential health risks in the future (cardiomyopathy). If a cat is not reunited and s/he is not an adoption candidate due to behavior, relocation and TNR is the likely outcome. Each should be approached with consideration.
Relocating cats is always the last option for unsocialized cats. But if the area they were trapped in is not suitable for returning to and/or there are other circumstances with an individual cat that eliminate returning as a viable option, then relocation is the best outcome. When relocating FieldHaven has established best practices for maximizing the chance for a successful relocation.
Returning cats to a fire zone is not as harsh as it sounds. The fire zones, while changed significantly from the home they knew is still in many respects familiar to the cats. That being said, a fire zone that has not had clearing and/or is still in active recovery process is not when cats should be released. A “fresh” fire zone is dangerous for the cats to inhabit for many reasons. All cats should be recovered from the fire zone, put into the recovery center and then if the fire zone is no longer a hostile environment, released back near where they were trapped.
I want to emphasize that returning cats the fire zone is only to be done with careful forethought, especially to ensure the area they once called “home” is still safe for them and there is adequate support for the cats such as colony caregivers. Returning cats should only be done after the fire zone itself has begun a recovery process which is usually several months after the fire.
Having done TNR and rescue from a variety of situations (eg hoarding) fire cat rescue is like no other form of rescue I have ever done. Cats have an extraordinary will to live and cope with the most horrific of situations. While physically they are survivors, that ability to cope often affects them psychologically as they “shut down”. It is easy to assume that cats are survivors and, indeed they are, but often their defense is to retreat and find their inner tiny tiger.
Doing fire cat recovery is challenging but rewarding. We are proud of the work we have done in fire cat recovery and want to share our knowledge to communities who have had the unfortunate experience of a wild fire. By using the power of local animal sheltering organizations along with the power of the cat-loving community, establishing a fire recovery center for the feline victims is very achievable.
Our team is here to lend a hand.