By Craig Hill / The News Tribune
Laura Carlson believes cats know how much their owners love them.
And she believes that’s what kept alive a 12-year-old declawed tabby cat with a heart murmur while he was lost 40 days in Montana.
“I just know he was looking for me,” said Carlson, owner of a Gig Harbor cat shelter.
Captain went missing on Sept. 8 when it got loose from an elderly woman who adopted the cat from Harbor Hope Cat Rescue. The woman was moving to Alabama and stopped for a night at a hotel in Butte, Montana. When the woman couldn’t retrieve the cat, she continued east and called Carlson with the bad news.
“He is a house cat who has been declawed and is not used to being outside,” Carlson said. “It just broke my heart to think of him out there.”
From 600 miles away, Carlson launched an extensive search effort.
She bought wildlife cameras that were set up by volunteers around the hotel. She had multiple rounds of automated calls and pet amber alerts sent out to the Butte community. She coordinated search parties via Facebook. She contacted local media outlets and volunteers posted hundreds of fliers.
Traps were set up and Carlson sent boxes of her shirts and blankets in hopes the scent would attract Captain.
As summer gave way to fall and temperatures dropped, Carlson and the volunteers didn’t lose hope. Even after three snowfalls, the search continued.
“Saving him became my full-time obsession,” Carlson said. “… People kept saying somebody must have picked him up, but I knew he was still out there.”
Carlson was amazed that dozens of strangers in Butte spent so much time looking for Captain. One, Theresa Froehlich, took time off from her job at Montana Tech to help and became one of Carlson’s primary contacts. “I feel like I have a new friend for life,” Carlson said. “She was tireless.”
Captain kept giving searchers hope, appearing occasionally on footage from the wildlife cameras.
By October 15, the forecast looked bleak. “A big snow storm was coming in,” Carlson said. “He would not have lasted through the weekend.”
Carlson coordinated four people to watch her shelter and drove to Butte to join the search. “I just felt sick,” she said.
She spent several days wandering through the forest near the hotel where Captain went missing. She crawled over and under logs and happened upon a homeless encampment.
After a few days of intense searching, Carlson was exhausted. She noticed a cat around the corner from the hotel.
“I said, ‘There’s a cat,’” Carlson said. Then she realized who it was.
She near Captain and starting talking to him.
“I could see every bone in his body,” she said.
Scared, Captain took off and Carlson tried to follow.
She went to her car and grabbed a container of treats. She set them out and cried, “It’s dinner time for good kitties,” the way she always announces dinner at the shelter. Again, Captain ran off.
At about 11 p.m. on Oct. 18, armed with flashlights and treats, Carlson and Froehlich noticed a shadow in a stack of pallets near the hotel.
“Captain, it’s me. I’m here to help you,” Carlson said. She grabbed him and held him in arms. Captain was stiff and scared. Then, “he looked at me and every muscle relaxed,” Carlson said.
By 1 a.m., Captain was at a pet emergency room. He weighed just 5 1/2 pounds, down from 13. A vet noted there were small pieces of gravel in his stomach.
When it was time for Carlson to travel back to Gig Harbor, the vet said Captain wasn’t healthy enough to go. He first needed to gain some weight and pass a blood test.
On Tuesday, nearly two months after his adventure began and two weeks after his rescue, Captain was finally home, sleeping on a pillows at Harbor Hope Cat Rescue.
“All I want people to know from this is to not give up on their pets,” Carlson said.
Tabby cats often live to be 18 or older, Carlson said, but Captain won’t be adopted again.
His Butte adventure, was Captain’s second brush with death. Several years ago, his previous owners dropped him off at a University Place vet and asked for him to be euthanized. Instead, the vet called Carlson.
“I don’t know what all happened out there (in Montana),” Carlson said, “but Captain is spending his last seven lives with me.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497, @AdventureGuys