In Oakland, pets survived the inferno Rescuers search debris for animals

November 29, 1991|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Special to The Sun

OAKLAND, Calif. -- A month after one of the worst urban fires in U.S. history incinerated 1,800 acres of homes and trees here, volunteers are still searching through the ashes for some of the smallest and most ingenious survivors: cats and dogs.

More than 400 pets -- a few parakeets, several rabbits, a couple of pheasants, a turtle, a macaw and hundreds of cats and dogs -- have been rescued from the hills where the decimated landscape resembles the surface of the moon. About two pets a day, mostly cats, are still turning up.

Many cats survived the heat of the flames, which reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, by hiding below ground in sewers and drainage pipes.

Many dogs ran for miles, making it harder to find them now. Nearly 150 found pets remain unclaimed, apparently given up for dead by their owners.

"If your tires melted off your car and your ceramics that can take 1,000 degrees no longer exist, it's easy to think, 'How could my cat have survived?' " said Connie Cwynar, a volunteer with In Defense of Animals, a non-profit group that is coordinating the search effort. "We say, 'Don't give up, we've got the proof they survived.' "

The search for the missing pets has taken on a particularly Californian aura at times. A psychic named Bonnie is working telepathically "to try to get some of the animals to come in now."

Enlisting the help of the spirits of all the cats she has lost in the last 10 years, she spent an all-night vigil near one of the most severely burned areas.

She said she communicated, telepathically, with three cats with burned feet "who were prepared to sit there and die."

The more conventional efforts are no less charged with urgency. On a recent moonlit night, volunteer Doll Stanley drove her red pickup into the burned-out area, her headlights sweeping over a terrain of chimney stumps, charred trees and twisted bits of metal.

"These people who lived here are going through hell," she said. "They've lost everything. They want their babies back."

She pulled over next to a mound of ash and removed a wire cage from the back of her truck. After dropping a bit of a sardine on a plastic lid inside the cage, she placed the cage in the rubble. She planned to check the cage every three hours through the night.

She has caught 22 cats in the last two weeks this way. The cats are then brought to the humane society, treated for any injuries they have, photographed for a missing cat mug-shot album and placed in a foster home.

Information is then released to a missing pet hot line and a computer network.

"The cats are so blown away, so shell-shocked," said Ms. Stanley.

When Mr. Fox, an orange cat with long legs, didn't appear after fire destroyed the house of his owner, a friend remembered how much Mr. Fox liked classical music.

"It was something familiar," said Ester Rasmussen, Mr. Fox's owner. So the friend put out a battery-powered radio set to a classical station. Two days later Mr. Fox was found, sleeping peacefully under a bush near the radio.

Others have not been as lucky. Xenia Lee has accepted that her black Labrador, Oscar, died in the fire.

She has checked all the animal shelters and found no report of him. The worst of it has been thinking about his last moments, she said.

"The fire was so hot. It was just instant," she said. "You hate the idea he was trapped."

Five-year-old Matthew Flannes had given up hope that his gray tabby cat Binky had survived. Then last week his mother, Ann Gildersleeve, spotted a picture of Binky in the missing pet photo album at the disaster relief center.

When Matthew first saw Binky at the humane center, he put the tip of her tail in his mouth, just like he used to. "I like her," he said shyly.

"What about Tiger?" said Matthew. His mother said she didn't know, but they were going to keep looking for the cat named Tiger as well.

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