99 Lives: An Almeda fire survivor’s tale
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a factual error.
One of the more heart-wrenching animal tales to emerge from the flames of the devastating Almeda fire, an orange tabby named 99 is living his best life, figuring out how to do justice with any of his remaining lives.
Burned over much of his body during the September 2020 blaze, the now-chubby house cat has made it to the semifinals in this year’s America’s Favorite Pet Competition, a partnership with the PAWS Foundation (paws.org).
The online contest aims to raise money for animal rehabilitation and recovery, and the voting process has mirrored real life for the survivor kitty — with website visitors nearly as taken by his story and his orange scruff as was Medford resident Adrienne Reynolds.
Reynolds and 99 crossed paths just months before that fateful day.
Working on her self-proclaimed “one-woman mission” to sterilize a colony of cats living at the Totem Pole Trailer Park in Talent, Reynolds came across 99 — then just a young Tom, waiting for free food and likely some companionship while stealthily avoiding the pesky traps she had set.
“By September 2020, I had gotten about 20 cats fixed and found homes for five of the friendlier ones. I had just a handful left to get fixed,” Reynolds said. “The evening before the fires, I was there trapping and feeding the colony, and I was able to trap three more adult cats and one baby kitten.”
“There was another kitten there that just would not go into my trap, even though it was very curious. Since I was tired and it had been a long day, I thought, 'Eh, I'll catch that little cutie pie tomorrow.'"
Driving past the mobile home park as she evacuated from her own dwelling, Reynolds remembers the helplessness and heartbreak of seeing the rows of modest homes “completely engulfed in flames.”
A recovery coordinator for Oregon Recovery, Reynolds said the following days were a whirlwind of activity.
Driving a white van, she purchased a flashing orange light, often used by utility workers, and was able to slip past roadblocks to check for animals that might have survived.
Reynolds spent days collecting burned animal carcasses, fielding calls from frantic pet owners and leaving bowls of food and water.
“The day after the fires, when I was trying to collect cats from Totem Pole, was the first time I spotted 99. He was badly burned, singed from head to paws. He ran from me faster than a ball of lighting, hiding in some unknown spot,” Reynolds said.
“Prior to the fires, I had not yet trapped him from the colony to get him sterilized, but I had seen him hanging around.”
By day three, Reynolds had spotted 99 a handful of times. Realizing his injuries were extensive and that he was running out of time, with infection from his injuries setting in, she approached once again.
“He ran from me, jumping a small fence into a blackberry bush that led to a muddy, algae-filled, runoff swamp. I could tell he was weak from the effort it took for him to scale the fence. So I followed blindly, like a madwoman on a mission,” she said with a laugh.
“I summoned my sweetest, most nonthreatening, ‘Here kitty, kitty!’ voice. To any bystander, I would have looked like I lost my damned mind. Covered in mud from head to boots, hair a mess, face dirty … standing alone in a blackberry bush calling for a cat.
“Thankfully, 99 cried and mewed out. Without the meowing, I never would have located him in the drainage ditch he got himself into.”
Scooping up the dying kitty, Reynolds tucked him inside her shirt and rushed to Southern Oregon Veterinary Specialty Center, an emergency veterinary clinic in Medford.
“He had given up and there was no more fight left in him. Rushing him to SOVSC, I said a little prayer for his well-being. At intake, the staff at SOVSC needed a name for this badly burned cat that belonged to nobody. 99 was rescued off of Highway 99, and that was the name that I blurted out,” Reynolds explained.
Transferred to a local vet’s office for follow-up care, Reynolds was called to collect the scraggly orange cat four days later.
“There was no more that could be done for him. It was up to him now, whether he would live. With a bag full of euphoria-inducing painkillers, healing antibiotics, bandages and a heart full of hope, I took him back to our little trailer to begin the long process of healing,” she said.
Almost as if Reynolds’ hope and the love of strangers on social media were fueling his fight, he began to show a will to live.
Reynolds hesitates to post too many photos of 99’s injuries. Those who saw them, she acknowledges, would have bet for certain his survival was unlikely.
“Every day, he became stronger, more alert, more cat-like. He was healing exponentially. Medicine helped tremendously to get him through pain and anxiety.
Not only was he healing from a horrific fire that physically and mentally traumatized him, but he was learning to live indoors and be around people and become a domestic house cat,” Reynolds recounted.
“Every day, he got stronger and stronger. And every day, we fell more in love with each other.”
A year and a half later, signs of slow recovery still visible in much of Talent and Phoenix, Reynolds is pleased to report she is now very much “owned” by the cat who fought so hard to live.
Save for a few scars, his playful, demanding nature belies the trauma he experienced.
“He demands his breakfast promptly at 6 a.m. with that same pitiful meowing that saved his life in that boggy, swampy drainage ditch,” said Reynolds. “And I continue to respond to his every want, need, whim or whine.”
While she’d be excited for 99 to win the “America’s Favorite Pet” contest, Reynolds said he would be her “favorite” no matter what.
“He is proof that, after medical intervention, love, time and patience can heal all wounds,” she said. “He arose from the ashes of a horrific and scarring event to become a celebrated and loved creature for all to adore.”
Voting in America’s Favorite Pet Competition ends Thursday, March 31, at 6 p.m. As of Wednesday, 99 was in seventh place. To learn more, visit https://bit.ly/3tQnUTR
Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at email@example.com