Cat hunters prowl to reunite Santa Rosa felines and families separated by fires

In the aftermath of the October fires families thought their pets were gone but volunteers have been reuniting them.|

Who does that?!

The question burst from fire-displaced Kristy Militello upon learning that one of the two pet cats she long feared were killed in the October inferno, and then the second, were painstakingly stalked and rescued by a convalescing federal policeman who night after night, on his own time, employs fairly sophisticated technology and infinite patience to catch lost cats.

For weeks, Militello and her family mourned the loss of their home off Riebli Road and of their brother-and-sister cats. Out of the blue, the actions of a good Samaritan brought Cleo and the seriously burned and starving Brutus back to the family.

'Who goes out at 3 or 4 in the morning and catches cats for people?' Militello marveled.

Shannon Jay does.

He lives in Forestville and has worked in law enforcement for 29 years. At present he's on sick leave following the removal three months back of a benign brain tumor.

Jay is nearly 53, and a cat lover. A year ago an indoor cat he adored ran off.

'I was completely beside myself,' said the compact and gentle-edged National Park Service police officer.

He searched for his cat but was foiled, so he consulted with renowned cat detective Kim Freeman. Some of what she advised seemed counterintuitive, Jay said, but he found his missing cat.

Then came the historically deadly and destructive North Bay fires. Aware that many residents could not round up their pets before fleeing, Jay weeks ago set out to find cats that survived but were terrified and possibly injured, and prone to hiding in daylight and looking for food at night.

Jay also brought Freeman from Texas to Sonoma County to lead a seminar on how to find lost cats. Many nights, Jay, a 1983 graduate of Forestville's El Molino High School, puts into action what he has learned from Freeman and from experience.

He actively searches burned areas for cats, concentrating on the hills and flats of Riebli and Wallace roads and Fountaingrove. Other volunteers are focusing on finding, catching and reuniting cats with their families in the ravaged Coffey Park area.

Often accompanied by his girlfriend, Heather Eisenberg, Jay cruises burned neighborhoods armed with flashlights, motion-tripped trail cameras, a thermal imaging scope, night-vision goggles, trapdoor cages 'and lots of smelly bait.'

He may track a wary and elusive cat for days or weeks before at last enticing it with mackerel to enter a trap cage.

'Trapping is the culmination of a long effort,' he said.

So far he has trapped 14 cats.

The best known is Thomas. That catastrophic morning of Oct. 9, Thomas leapt from the arms of 15-year-old Lea Stockham as she as her family made a hasty evacuation of their doomed home off Skyfarm Drive, just south of Mark West Spring Road.

Lea and her folks returned to the ruins days later and found the body of a burned cat on the porch. They assumed it was Thomas.

But just over a week ago, Jay trapped a cat near Skyfarm Drive and a scan of its microchip revealed it to be Thomas. The story of his rescue almost two months after his presumed death and burial made news across the country.

Jay thinks the story of a cat named Brutus is even more astounding.

About 1 a.m. one day in early November, Jay was driving slowly on Riebli Road, holding a powerful flashlight out the window. Rounding a corner, the beam caught a small glint.

Was that the eye of cat?

Jay backed up and shone the light where he'd seen the tiny reflection. There sat a cat.

'It didn't move, and that was a bit alarming,' he said. Normally in such a situation, the cat scoots.

Jay stepped from his pickup and hoisted a trap cage. He baited and set it, then left for about an hour. Upon his return, he saw the cat hadn't moved from its spot, and he knew then it was injured.

He stepped close enough to see the cat was singed and emaciated. He took a few more steps and the cat moved away, ducking into a concrete culvert.

Jay used a cat carrier to block one end of the pipe. Then he turned on his cellphone's video and crawled into the other end.

It was slow going. About an hour had passed before he reached the cat, which had moved to the blocked end of the culvert. Jay spoke softly to the animal, and took hold of it.

He worked his way out of the culvert, carried the pitiful cat to his pickup and drove directly to a PetCare animal hospital in Santa Rosa. Jay said that without medical attention the cat would have been dead within a day or two.

'I'm constantly amazed and stupefied by what a cat will go through to stay on this earth,' he said.

Staffers at PetCare found the male cat's injuries included horrible burns to all four paws. An implanted microchip contained Kristy Militello's phone number.

Militello may never forget the phone call she received about 3:30 that November morning. PetCare had Brutus, the cat she'd come to accept was killed nearly a month earlier.

The first time Militello and her husband, Ben Wylie, visited the scrawny and burned Brutus they barely recognized him. And then just about the time Brutus came home from the animal hospital, Militello and her family received a second shocking telephone call: Shannon Jay also had found and captured Brutus' sister, Cleo.

Days ago, Militello, her husband and their daughter, Ava, had Jay and his girlfriend over to their temporary home in Santa Rosa for a thank-you dinner.

Militello is awed by Jay's determination to find the surviving cats and return them to their families, most of whom struggle with the loss of their homes.

'He's just been a ray of sunshine in a sea of devastation,' she said.

Jay is happy to be in the company of other animal lovers who also are toiling to find lost pets and reunite them with their families.

Amid the ruins of Coffey Park neighborhood, Jennifer Petruska and her mother, Kary Wind, and other volunteers have consistently put out food and water for cats, and have caught about 35.

'We're usually getting between one and four catches a day,' Petruska said. For her and her fellow volunteers, the satisfaction of rescuing a cat is exceeded only by reuniting it with its family.

'It's very fulfilling to do this for people who've lost everything,' Petruska said. She said people who've lost or found cats can contact her at

There are also other volunteers, organized by Andrea Cogbill, who have built and placed scores of shelters for cats yet to be caught and returned.

Shannon Jay repeats the cat rescuers' common message to fire victims who two months after the disaster are missing beloved pets: There is still hope.

'We've just got to get them home,' he said.

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and

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