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Sanctuary for hero dog Odin in 2017 fires meant sticking with his goats

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Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

One of the heroes of the 2017 Tubbs fire is a handsome Great Pyrenees named Odin who risked his life and was injured while protecting his herd of livestock and even some wildlife.

Late on that awful night of Oct. 8, huge flames fanned by raging winds closed in on Odin’s home on Franz Valley Road outside Santa Rosa. Odin’s owner, Roland Hendel, had only a few minutes to evacuate his family and pets.

Aside from their cats and two dogs, the Hendels owned eight bottle-fed rescue goats. In the rush to leave, it wasn’t possible to bring the goats.

Odin was still a pup, only 1½ years old, but he took his job as nighttime guardian of the flock so seriously that he refused to budge from the property without the goats. Hendel was forced to leave Odin behind. The family barely got out ahead of the flames, and they presumed Odin and the goats were forever lost.

Two days later, with the neighborhood still burning, Hendel skirted police roadblocks and returned home to find his property leveled, including the pumphouse and barn. Trees were still burning.

But Odin and all eight goats were there to greet him, along with some fawns that the Great Pyrenees had taken under his protection.

“I think he led them onto a pile of rocks where he knew they wouldn’t burn,” Hendel said. “The goats always listen to him absolutely. He has a number of different barks. If he barks one way, the goats jump on the rocks; another bark, and they come down.”

Odin suffered minor injuries during the fire.

“His coat was singed from the heat,” Hendel said. “It was sort of melted, like when a cat’s fur gets too close to a candle flame. He limped from burns on his paw pads. He looked shrunken, and his coat was sort of rough and orange. It’s usually creamy white. He must have run through the fire but never got caught by it.”

Odin’s story was one of the brightest survival tales to emerge in the first days of the fires, making the workman pup a media star among thousands of domestic animals displaced during the 2017 firestorm. Some were quickly reunited with owners, returning to homes that had survived disaster. Many others were taken in temporarily and sometimes permanently by animal sanctuaries, large ranches and regular homes.

“More than 1,000 large animals were housed temporarily at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds alone,” said Dr. Amber Bowen, a veterinarian who was in charge of large animal evacuation at the fairgrounds during the fire and in ensuing weeks. Up to 300 volunteers helped care for the animals taken there during the firestorm.

Bowen estimated that another 10,000 animals were cared for elsewhere, in animal sanctuaries and other small properties.

It would be eight months before the Hendel family and its pets could begin to live together again on their devastated property. In the meantime, the goats, plus Odin, and his sister, Tessa — the flock’s daytime guardian — ended up living with and being cared for by others.

After staying at the fairgrounds, one of their temporary sanctuaries was a colorfully named outfit — Goatlandia — established on a bucolic northwest Santa Rosa property only months before the fire by a former San Franciscan who’d plied successful careers ranging from swimwear designer to cargo pilot and restaurateur.

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

Deborah Blum was in search of a more peaceful life when she moved in 2011 onto her 2 acres off Olivet Lane. But she never set out to run an animal sanctuary. She came to it gradually, through a series of decisions and events.

After volunteering in a wildlife rescue center for two years, she decided she’d enjoy adopting a few farm animals. Influenced by the work of animal welfare activist Gary Yourofsky, she adopted a vegan diet and later began visiting animal sanctuaries. She took in a few animals herself, and then a few more.

After attending the annual Farm Animal Care Conference in 2016, she decided to open an animal sanctuary. By the summer of 2017, Goatlandia had attained its nonprofit status and by early October, just before the fire, the sanctuary held 46 animals.

Those numbers would soon double.

“When the fire broke out I’d been in Hawaii for three days,” Blum said. Her red-eye flight home Sunday night, Oct. 8, arrived at San Francisco International Airport before dawn on Monday.

“I landed here at 4:30 a.m. and had a phone message from a neighbor asking if I’d gotten out OK,” she said. “I had no idea what he meant, so I called him and learned about the fire.”

Blum’s property was close to Coffey Park, which was largely destroyed by the fires. She rushed home from the airport and immediately began evacuating animals to her mother’s property in Sebastopol.

“I only had a van,” she said. “No horse truck or livestock trailer. I was putting chickens in crates, crowding animals into the van. I wasn’t prepared for anything like this.”

Today is different. She has a livestock trailer always ready to go. If her car is down to a quarter tank, she fills it. When people adopt Goatlandia animals, she counsels them about being prepared for emergencies. She recommends buying a small trailer when owning more than two goats.

That was all hard-won wisdom from the fires, when she was fielding panicked calls from Sonoma County residents, many of them complete strangers who had somehow obtained her phone number. All asked for her help in rescuing and sheltering their animals.

One of those people was Kenwood resident Skye Davis. Early morning on the inferno’s third day, the police had allowed Davis onto her evacuated property, but only long enough to collect her six goats and leave. The goats wouldn’t fit into her white truck, so she started contacting people for help. She ended up talking to Blum, who she did not know.

Blum was sleeping when the phone rang, but she picked up. “Just let me brush my teeth and I’m on my way,” Davis recalled her saying. The two women fit the animals and Davis’ dog into their two vehicles and brought them to Goatlandia, where they stayed until Davis could bring them home.

When the Hendel pets arrived at Goatlandia, only Odin bore physical injuries, but they all showed signs of emotional trauma, Blum said.

“Think about it,” she said. “It’s kind of like an alien abduction. Animals are smart. They see the fire and smoke, they feel the heat, they know something’s wrong, and then we throw a towel over their heads and stick them in a van. They don’t know what’s happening. They pick up on our energy, too. They feel anger and violence, fear and chaos.

“All the animals that came from the fire were very frightened. Some of them you couldn’t approach, couldn’t pet for a long time. You could see fear in their behavior. At first they huddled closely together, but after a week or so most of them settled down. They knew everything was cool, it was fine, and they were being loved.

“But Odin, he was always cool. He’s friendly, but he’s more serious than his sister. He started working, being the guardian, as soon as he got here and stayed that way.”

Odin’s paws gradually healed, his coat returned to its creamy white color, and he once again stood out as a stately Great Pyrenees — the protagonist in many television, online and print news stories published worldwide, including in Time and People.

When the pets finally returned home, Hendel thought he saw lingering signs of trauma in Odin.

“He was a little jumpy,” he said. “A little nervous. There was a period when he was wary of strangers. For a while I thought his vision was compromised, so I took him to an ophthalmologist, but there was no problem. I think it had something to do with trauma.

“I’d say he’s now 100% his old self. He’s a happy dog. And he’s happiest of all when he’s doing his job.”

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