Fire Cats Rescue Team Saves 70 Lives

During the horrific firestorms here in October, panicked pet owners had minutes (and I’m talking two or three minutes, not 20 or 30) in the middle of the night (with power out) to evacuate. Dogs tend to rush to their masters and stay at their sides, but cats instinctively hide or scratch and claw their way out of the grasp of frantic owners, and disappear into the night. (I’m convinced that in a similar situation, we’d never be able to locate every one of our four cats in the middle of the night, get them into carriers and away to safety. And no, I wouldn’t leave them behind.)

Jennifer Petruska’s Santa Rosa home was one of the few in her neighborhood to be spared. She’s dedicated herself to reuniting the “fire cats” with their owners, spending nearly every night of the last couple of months tracking and trapping the cats who were lucky enough to escape the firestorm, but are now too spooked for capture.

Her team of volunteers have caught more than 70, and believe dozens more are still on the loose.

Their effort is extraordinary. They’ve set up night-vision cameras in storm drains and creek beds, where many cats went into hiding. Every evening at dusk they set traps baited with tuna and mackerel, checking them hourly until dawn.

Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“If you want to catch a cat you have to stay up all night — that’s just the name of the game,” Ms. Petruska said as she prepared for another cold, dark cat stalking session. “I’ve been a horrible insomniac my whole life, so it suits me.”

She’s focuses on Coffey Park, where over 1000 homes were lost. The charred neighborhood looks like a bombed-out war zone with only chimney stacks and the occasional trunks of trees still standing. Incinerated cars wait in driveways. Peturuska’s team says they realize that with nearly 5,000 homes destroyed in the Santa Rosa area alone their effort is ancillary to the grieving.

Yet, at night that bleak landscape is still teeming with critters, mostly unseen. Petruska knows there are still many cats on the loose because her motion-activated cameras capture them nearly every night, along with a parade of other nocturnal animals such as skunks, opossums and raccoons.

To the families who lost everything, recounting how Ms. Petruska helped recover their cats often brings tears.

“I just wanted my cat — that was the only thing I wanted back,” said Kelly Stinson, whose home was destroyed. “I spent hours every single day looking for her.”

Petruska located the cat and after an evening of coaxing returned the next day and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck.

Barbara Gray, right, and her daughter Kelly searched through a burned property where cat traps had been set out earlier.
Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Sara Ratekin, a veterinarian who has treated many of the cats rescued by Ms. Petruska’s team, says the fires have shown the ability of cats to survive perilous circumstances. Captured fire cats often arrive in her office with burned paws, singed whiskers — and many pounds lighter than before the fire.

Unlike dogs, cats have an instinct to flee when they sense danger, Dr. Ratekin said.

“I can explain why they ran away,” she said. “But I can’t explain why they became so wild so quickly.”

A cat that was found at the Journeys End Mobile Park in Santa Rosa.
Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Petruska assembles personality profiles of each cat she stalks. One cat likes the sound of whipped cream fizzing from a can. She carries a can in her car. Another cat answers to the sound of the crinkling of a bag of a specific brand of cat treats. She carries the treats.

Not surprisingly, the most effective lure appears to be fish. Petruska soaks socks in the juices from cans of mackerel and hangs them from trees.

Around 10 fire cats have been found without any clues as to their owners; they are being kept at Sonoma County’s animal services department.

She has found cats even after owners gave up the search. Cindy Fulwider fled her home in the early hours of Oct. 9 as embers the size of golf balls rained down. She was convinced that her cat, whom she calls Sweet Baby, had perished. Then she got a call five weeks after the fire from one of Ms. Petruska’s team.

“I really thought we would never see him again,” Fulwider said.

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Category: Featured, Good News Tuesday

About the Author ()

Mousebreath Magazine is an award-winning online magazine that celebrates cats and the cat-centric lifestyle. Editor Karen Nichols is a popular conference speaker and writer, whose current project is The Cat Scout Handbook. She is also the denmaster at

Comments (6)

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  1. Jennifer Petruska and volunteers are heroes! Thank you for posting about them!

  2. Tara Morse says:

    Thank you – I’m so glad there is someone like her in the world. What an amazing service she is providing.

  3. We heard Jennifer interviewed on NPR yesterday! What a great lady with cattitude to spare!

  4. Ellen Pilch says:

    Amazing people to rescue these babies.

  5. It sent shivers down my spine reading this story. What a wonderful caring loving person Petruska is.x

  6. These people are indeed heroes and we are so thankful for people like that who love animals and love the people who love their animals. Cats and dogs are our fur babies and every bit our children. We love them very much and are heartbroken without them. Prayers of thanks and admiration go out to the people who help find our babies.


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