How a Rescue Director and 3 Passersby Saved 86 Cats From a Raging Fire
When Jackie Mihal woke up the morning of March 4 she had no idea that she'd be packing up nearly 90 animals and running from a wildfire before the night was over.
Mihal is the president of Salty Cats of St. Andrews Rescue in Panama City, Fla., where she takes in stray, feral, and abandoned cats; provides them with medical treatment and spay and neuter procedures; and ultimately adopts them to loving forever homes.
"We have some that I know will never be adopted unless we find another person like me who's OK with them never being handled," Mihal tells Daily Paws. "But the majority of them are highly adoptable. They're spayed, neutered, and ready to go."
The exact number of animals under Salty Cats' care fluctuates with the seasons and adoption traffic, but on the night of March 4, the rescue was at capacity with 86 cats and one rabbit resting comfortably in the cottage nestled in Mihal's backyard. She had just stepped into her backyard that evening to check on the animals when a wall of flames greeted her.
"No warning," she says. "None. The whole woods was on fire."
The Adkins Avenue fire would go on to destroy two homes in the area and damage several more, but in that moment all Mihal knew was that she had 87 animals who needed to be moved. Fast. As luck would have it, three good Samaritans—Brian Salmon, Scott Morris, and Scott Trunzo—were in the neighborhood, checking to see if anyone needed help evacuating. They happened upon Mihal just as she was starting to crate up her cats.
"The building was being engulfed in smoke," Mihal says. "I keep all my windows open and the smoke was pouring in. We didn't know how much time we'd have before the building went up. I never could have gotten it done if [Salmon, Morris and Trunzo] hadn't been there."
Between the four of them, they managed to work out a makeshift assembly line. Mihal placed cats into crates and handed them out the door to Salmon, Morris, and Trunzo while they unloaded Mihal's packed trailer so it could be used to transport the animals. Between the four sets of hands and their combined sense of urgency, Mihal says they managed to get all the animals loaded into crates, stacked in the trailer, and moved in about 20 minutes.
"I don't know how we were able to do what we did, but someone was definitely on our side," Mihal says. "The guys were a big, big help."
The flames barely stopped short of Mihal's property, burning right up to the corner of the cottage before changing direction and leaving her buildings heavily smoke damaged, she says.
She took the cats and rabbit to a friend's home, where they were housed in a large storage building. Unfortunately, the trauma greatly overwhelmed two of the cats and they had to be euthanized. Two other cats sustained minor eye injuries.
The cats stayed at the alternate site for about 10 days while Mihal worked to repair the smoke-damaged cottage and replace toys, blankets, and cat towers that were saturated with smoke and blown ash.
"Everything had to be tossed out because of the smoke," she says. "Then we had to wash everything down, repaint, and reseal everything before the cats could come back. We were in there working for about 10 days."
Now, Mihal has all of her animals back in the cottage, and she's grateful for the overflowing community support.
"It's been tremendous," she says. "People are bringing beds and toys and money. We're still getting towers in. We had about seven towers that had to be tossed. As donations come in, we buy new towers.
"Someone donated the paint, which was huge. I had volunteers come help me paint. All that plays a huge part for us in terms of being able to continue helping animals."
She says the outpouring of support has definitely helped her get up and running again faster than she could have hoped—great news for the cats she's helping find their forever homes.
"The more people see our name, I hope that they're going to think of us first [for adoptions]," she says. "But as long as they're adopting, I don't care where they're adopting from as long as cats are finding homes."