Animal Rescue Santa Cruz Mountains San Lorenzo ValleyColumn: Julie Horner Fire Recovery Local News 

Heading Home

Local Animal Group Rescues and Reunites Lost Fire Pets

By Julie Horner with Frances Tracy-Black, Melissa Finley, and Liz Neely

As the Santa Cruz Mountains were being evacuated from the CZU fire, many families were unable to locate or evacuate their animals in the chaos and thought there was no hope for the pets that didn’t make it out. What rescuers have learned from past fires in California is that animals are astonishing survivors. Santa Cruz County based Heading Home Animal Rescue (HHAR), a 501(c)3 non-profit founded in 2011, mobilized their team to help get fire pets home. As evacuations lifted, their volunteers were busily collecting lost pet reports from owners and setting up feeding stations and cameras at locations where pets were lost. 

Partnered with Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter and Petsmart adoption centers, HHAR is dedicated to assisting animals most in need. Their focus is on free to low cost spay/neuter, medical cases, and finding homes for approximately 1000 cats a year through their adoption centers at Petsmart in Santa Cruz, San Mateo, and Mountain View. Melissa Finley, executive director of HHAR, leads the ground rescue efforts for the CZU Complex Fire. Frances Tracy-Black, based in Southern California, joins Heading Home for the CZU effort as online coordinator, bringing expertise developed from working with an animal disaster rescue team during the Camp Fire. Liz Neely, of Scotts Valley, who also volunteered online during the Camp Fire, focuses on challenging rescues in the field. The team also includes many dedicated volunteers who help daily behind the scenes.

The HHAR team continues to conduct cat rescues in San Lorenzo Valley and Bonny Doon. Along with their robust database of lost/found/sighted pets and public outreach on social media, part of what drives their success is building on lessons learned from prior fires and maintaining a flexible approach in determining the best course of action in each scenario. “Our team is experienced with trapping cats in standard rescue situations,” says Finley, “but what’s important to remember in disaster scenarios is that these animals are going to be in survival mode, they are unlikely to walk up to their owner the way they might have done pre-fire. It’s critical for rescuers to be able to adapt their rescue strategy on a per-cat basis. Sometimes it takes some trial and error with different observational and luring techniques, but most of all it takes patience.”

Since the fire, HHAR has successfully tracked, rescued, and reunited Charlemagne, Shooting Star, Relli, Felipe, Juniper, Oreo, Quasi, Momma Kitty, Bean, Creeper, and many more. Juniper was rescued by the HHAR team after 79 days missing. Creeper, who is an older cat, survived 94 days in the burn zone.

The Search for Red

Finding cats that are lost at secondary locations away from home is especially challenging. High priority for Heading Home is an orange tabby named Red. During evacuation from Boulder Creek, Bryan Servel was parked at San Lorenzo Valley High School, when his beloved cat Red sprang out of his vehicle. Bryan posted flyers throughout SLV, searched for her himself daily, and reached out to everyone he could think of for help, including local good samaritan, Ryan Okrant, and Heading Home Animal Rescue. “My heart still aches for my Red cat,” Bryan said, “I love that little kitty with all I have.”

To prepare for future emergencies, Tracy-Black recommends microchipping and having an evacuation plan and supplies ready. Practice loading pets into carriers ahead of time. “If there is fire anywhere nearby, getting animals inside and confined early before evacuation is ordered helps ensure they can be located and safely evacuated.”

If animals are unable to be evacuated or are lost during evacuation, rescuers urge pet owners to report them missing to everyone – including animal control, local rescue groups, lost and found pet groups on facebook, neighborhood groups and apps, and post paper flyers around the area. Report sightings of new animals in your neighborhood. It’s important that both rescue teams and local residents know to look out for lost pets. 

Contact Heading Home Animal Rescue:

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