Columbia cat lost in a February townhouse fire is found alive - though malnourished - inside wall of home

For Harley, a matter of survival

May 19, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

If only Harley could talk, the emaciated cat might explain where he has been for the past three months - how he got stuck behind the wall of a burned-out Columbia townhouse, deprived of food and water until a work crew found him while tearing out drywall this week.

His rescuers speculated that the 3-year-old black-and-white feline, who went home yesterday - skinny and humbled - fell from the ceiling and survived in the wall on condensation and rodents.

"If he was a human, I don't think he would have survived," said owner Cindy Hoffman, as she waited for Harley at an animal hospital with her 15-year-old daughter, Stacie. "He lost more than half of his weight."

Harley's ordeal started Feb. 8, when two boys playing with matches behind the row of townhouses on Winter Rose Path set the homes on fire, Howard County police said.

Part of the Hoffmans' roof was destroyed, and most of the structure sustained water damage. The Hoffmans were forced to move out as contractors rebuilt their home.

The family held out hope for Harley, one of three Hoffman cats, setting out food and litter for almost a month. Eventually, they gave up on him, believing he had run away.

The day of the fire was the last anyone saw of Harley until Tuesday, when a crew from Glen Burnie-based PRO Restoration was tearing out the walls.

"We saw a set of eyes looking at us," said Rick Rehmert, who found Harley. "The cat came stumbling out. It couldn't walk, really. It would take a couple of steps and just fall over. It was so tight in there, it couldn't go [anywhere] else."

The cat - who once weighed in the "double digits," his owners say - apparently had crawled up into the ruined ceiling and then fell 8 feet, landing between a vent and the wood frame behind the kitchen wall.

When he emerged, the once-hefty Harley weighed less than 6 pounds. He spent three days at the Baltimore Veterinary Emergency and Referral Center in Catonsville, where doctors diagnosed him with severe malnutrition and nerve damage caused by a lack of vitamin B1.

Sarah Piscitelli, a veterinary technician who cared for Harley when he was admitted, said the malnutrition was so bad that Harley was unaware, wobbly and uncoordinated. The lack of food was essentially causing Harley to lose motor functions. He also was unable to keep his head up.

Piscitelli said she was not sure how long Harley had been in the wall, but she said he could have survived there for months, especially if he was able to catch rodents. Hoffman, who calls Harley her "little miracle," believes that the cat likely licked condensation from the walls for water.

Harley will be on a liquid diet for several weeks. Hoffman will squirt food and water into a tube inserted into Harley's stomach through his nose. A cone has been placed around his neck to prevent him from scratching at the tubes.

Harley sneezed frequently as Piscitelli and fellow technician Ashley Davis fed him before discharging him from the veterinary hospital, and he meowed as the Hoffmans put him in their car, which they took as a good sign.

"We were working in there for two days and never did hear him meow, which I thought was weird," Rehmert said.

"As soon as the homeowners came in, he looked at them and started meowing. I thought that was neat."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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