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Petaluma shelter housing animals displaced by fire

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Just 15 minutes after midnight Oct. 9, as the eerie glow of flames back-lit her neighborhood and thick smoke blanketed her Santa Rosa neighborhood, Dawn Bordessa frantically called for her cat, Max. He never came.

As the Tubbs Fire rapidly encroached on her family’s home of four years near Mark West Springs Road, she was forced to pack up her children, ages 8 and 9, and flee without their beloved feline.

“It was crazy, it was so smoky I could hardly see, the wind was whipping and the power had gone out,” she said. “It was just kind of this end-of-the-world feeling and I felt like I couldn’t leave without my cat, but we had to go.”

The Bordessa landed at a family member’s Santa Rosa home, but were forced to evacuate several hours later to head to a friend’s house in Valley Ford. The next day, they returned to find their home destroyed. Max, an all-black 4-year-old cat who Bordessa describes as an intelligent and personable animal, was still missing.

“It was still smoldering and we had masks over our faces so we could breathe,” she said. “It was surreal and felt like a nightmare.”

Bordessa left food and water, and returned again more than a week after the fires with Max heavy on her mind. The family had adopted Max from the Sonoma Humane Society after falling in love with his unique mannerisms, like the way he “bulldozed” his head into Bordessa’s hand upon their first meeting.

“He’s like a dog — he walked the kids to school on their first day, he walks around the block, he plays chase,” she said. “He’s the coolest cat we’ve ever owned, and I’ve owned cats my whole life.”

On Oct. 19 as Bordessa was abandoning hope, she received a call from the Petaluma Animal Services Foundation, whose officer had trapped Max and identified him using a microchip implant that day.

When Bordessa got to the 840 Hopper St. shelter, she was worried a mistake had been made and she’d be reunited with the wrong cat. But, she knew it was Max when he nudged his head into her hand in the same way she’d grown to love.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” she said. “I broke down and ugly cried for a long time … the kids freaked out. We didn’t tell them, and when by husband brought Max in, they freaked out and he hugged him and said ‘I love you, will you watch a movie with us?’”

The reunion story is just one of many heartwarming tales from the Petaluma shelter, which took in about 10 cats and dogs displaced by fires that scorched more than 110,000 acres in Sonoma County, the nonprofit’s Director of Dog Training and Behavior Valerie Fausone said.

Wednesday, the shelter still had two dogs staff believes were displaced by fires, and it planned to hold the animals for a total of 30 days before offering them for adoption.

The shelter also mobilized its “Cuddle Shuttle,” safeguarding as many as 50 pets for 10 days while their owners stayed inside an evacuation center at Lucchesi Park, she said.

“In the end, all the people who lost everything really care about is their cats and dogs and families, and we played a role in helping preserve that,” she said. “Items and things can be replaced, but I can tell you all the people we’ve worked with wanted so very much to be reunited with their pets over pretty much anything they lost.”

The Tiny Pitbull, a Petaluma-based rescue that works with the city’s animal shelter, is preparing to take in pets surrendered by their owners, or dogs left at shelters beyond the 30-day mark.

The organization runs a foster network with more than 35 homes, and initially provided shelter to nearly 20 dogs after the fires.

“We are clearing space in our systems and waiting to see if there are surrenders,” founder Christine Del Ponte said. “We’ve already got a couple calls and met with some people this week to see if we can help temporarily with taking dogs over. It’s kind of a weird feeling right now, everything is kind of quiet, there’s not a whole lot of momentum and we’re unsure of what we’re going to do.”

The shelter is also prepared to take in animals surrendered by families impacted by the fires who can no longer house their pets, Fausone said.

“We will do anything we can to help people and animals suffering from the fire’s complicated housing aftermath,” Fausone said.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)