There foxes and moose, too, but Nala survived for more than two months.

By Austin Cannon
September 29, 2020
Advertisement
Credit: Brandon Ciullo

When it comes to places to lose your cat, the middle of the woodsy, predator-filled Colorado Rockies has to be one of the worst. 

That’s where Nala, a 2-year-old indoor tabby, went missing this summer. She and her owner, Juliet Alvarado, were driving west on Interstate 70 on June 5 when they crashed after going through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels, which sits at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet. 

The car spun out and rolled over. First responders took Alvarado to a hospital in Denver. Nala took off into the woods.

A few days later, Brandon Ciullo, president of Summit Lost Pet Rescue, got in touch with her owner after seeing a social-media post. Then he got to work. Sixty-eight days after the crash—and a few bear sightings—Ciullo and his team found Nala, amazingly only 25–30 yards away from the crash site. 

“If I don’t find tufts of fur, if I don’t find a carcass, if it’s not negative 10 degrees for seven or eight days, I’m not going to give up,” Ciullo says. 

The First Nala Sighting

Alvarado was devastated after the crash. 

“I remember being in the hospital and just crying the whole time because I just kept thinking about Nala,” Alvarado told the Summit Daily. “I didn’t care about my wellbeing; I cared about getting her back. In that moment, I felt like my whole world was crushed because we have that type of bond, like a best friend bond. She understands me perfectly well.”

After Ciullo reached out to her, she took him to the crash site, he says. Then he and his team placed wildlife cameras within one-half mile of the crash site. Through his training, Ciullo, who’s on his county’s human search-and-rescue team and is certified through the Missing Animal Response Network, figured Nala was still close, likely hiding. 

On June 11, one of the cameras captured a photo of the tabby cat. 

“She was alive in the area,” Ciullo says. 

No Sight of Nala for Weeks

Nala was around, but that meant it was time for the hard part: trapping her to eventually get her home. 

Ciullo placed fragrant cat food, including sardines, near the cameras. Usually he avoids that strategy because it attracts other animals, so he also sprinkled bits of kibble around the crash site. 

Sure enough, the smelly food brought in some decidedly not-cats. Snapshots showed several bear visits along with moose, elk, and a fox. But Ciullo had a theory: While the other animals ate the wet food, Nala would help herself to the kibble to keep from starving. 

While the food was being eaten, Ciullo and his team went weeks without a new photo of Nala, but he figured she was still in the area for two main reasons: The weather was calm and the predators weren’t threatening.   

Cats are so foreign to bears and foxes that they probably wouldn’t go after Nala, who had likely found an excellent hiding place anway, he says. (Coyotes would’ve been more worrisome, but he didn’t see any.) Plus, it was summer, months removed from negative temperatures and immense snowfall.  

“If this happened in the winter, [Nala] would have a very short window,” Ciullo says. 

He kept bringing the food to the crash site for more than a month. Then, five and a half weeks after the first photo of Nala, on July 17, they got another one. She was eating some of the kibble near a camera. 

Nala, shortly before she was caught.
| Credit: Brandon Ciullo

Trapping Nala

Ciullo and his team decided to pull the smelly cat food after seeing Nala. That was enough to dissuade the bears and foxes from stopping by, but the cameras caught Nala eating the kibble more and more—at first in the evening and early morning and then sometimes during daylight hours. 

It was time for the humane traps. Ciullo and his team deployed them, and a couple of his compatriots camped out at the crash site to check the traps every few hours. They sprinkled the kibble around the trap, making the circle smaller and smaller until there was only food inside the trap. 

“You trap an animal by starving it. I know that sounds ugly, but that’s what you gotta do,” Ciullo says. 

But for three days, Nala, a real smartypants, wouldn’t activate the traps. Ciullo’s two roommates spent three days at the crash site and checked the traps 32 times to no avail. He decided to take a step back, thinking he could wait Nala out. He didn’t want to miss what could only be one chance. 

“Let’s take a step back. Let’s disarm the traps, get her comfortable,” he says.

They disarmed the traps in early August so she could go in and out freely to get the food. On Aug. 10, Ciullo saw a photo from one of his cameras. Nala was sitting in one of the traps comfortably. 

“I said, ‘Today’s the day I’m going to arm the trap,’” he says. 

They armed the trap around 4:30 p.m. She was trapped about an hour later, no more than 30 yards away from where she went missing more than two months prior. Ciullo figures Nala probably didn’t stay much more than half a football field from the crash. 

He delivered the good news to Alvarado. 

“We both cried a little bit,” he says. “...She never thought she was ever going to see her cat again.”

Back together again.
| Credit: Brandon Ciullo

He’d probably spent 100 hours on the rescue, dedicating a lot of his summer to the mission. (He credits his rescue partner, Melissa Davis, for taking over a lot of the everyday operations and allowing him to focus much of his time on finding Nala.) A trip to a veterinarian showed that Nala had only lost half a pound, and she was free of parasites. Then it was time for the reunion. Avalardo drove to Summit County Animal Control and Shelter from Denver, the Summit Daily reported.

“It was super emotional,” Alvarado told the newspaper. “I just couldn’t believe that she was right there, in my face. I honestly feel like she knew who I was just because of how she reacted. As soon as I called out to her and put my hand out, she just wanted me to pet her.”