With more than 1,000 pets still missing or separated from their owners following the Camp Fire, Butte County animal care officials are defending their decision not to allow independent trappers and small, out-of-county volunteer groups to aid in rescue efforts.
Several animal rescue volunteers who worked independently or with local groups after the deadly Camp Fire destroyed Paradise and surrounding towns have told The Bee that Butte County and the North Valley Animal Disaster Group are now turning down their help.
The disappointed parties say Butte County has effectively phased them out, declining or disallowing out-of-county volunteer assistance in trapping, sheltering and reunification efforts for animals left behind in evacuated areas since about Thanksgiving, after making use of these volunteers earlier in the crisis.
Shannon Jay, a trapper and cat rescuer, says he has spent more than 65 hours in the Camp Fire burn zone and has more than 800 hours of experience with animal rescue during the devastating Carr and Tubbs fires.
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“There are thousands of animals still out there in (danger),” Jay said Tuesday.
Jay is permitted, and has spent between two and five days a week in the Camp Fire areas. He estimated that at times, about 200 animal rescue volunteers have been “on standby, waiting, waiting, waiting, and they were told ‘No, we don’t need you.’”
Volunteers must now be registered with the county for permission to access fire-affected areas for aid, according to county officials.
Butte County Public Health in a news release Monday said county animal control and NVADG are “fully staffed to perform both shelter-in-place operations and rescue/evacuation requests” with about 20 field teams working in the Camp Fire area.
Butte County acknowledged in the news release that third-party trappers are not being allowed into fire-affected areas.
“Indiscriminate trapping does not identify the animal or its owner,” the statement reads. “This leads to problems reuniting owners and pets.”
Concerns have also mounted regarding conditions at Butte County’s four emergency shelters, where more than 1,300 animals remained held among four locations as of Monday, Butte County Public Health Department spokeswoman Lisa Almaguer said.
“There have been instances of upper respiratory and kennel cough instances within our shelters,” Almaguer said. “When animals have contagious illness, we separate them from the well animals and provide them with veterinary care until they are better. With that said, these animal shelters are temporary locations and they were established for the immediate evacuation order during the Camp Fire.”
While nearby counties like Yuba and Sutter had initially sheltered some animals, most of those operations wrapped up last week as Butte County attempts to consolidate operations. In posts to Facebook, Butte County Public Health has said this will speed up the reunification process.
There are currently four animal shelters set up for Camp Fire animals: Old County Hospital in Oroville, Chico Airport, Richvale Humane Society and the Butte County Fairgrounds in Gridley. The Gridley shelter is designated for large animals and the rest are for small animals.
“At this time, we are reaching out and asking residents to come and pick up their animals,” Almaguer said, “or to find long-term foster care for their pets” if they don’t have a home to take them back to.
The county is also leaving some animals in the burned areas, called “sheltering-in-place,” as more evacuation orders are lifted and residents can return.
The county’s shelter-in-place guidelines involve keeping healthy animals found in “safe situations,” such as intact homes, and feeding and hydrating them, according to Monday’s news release. “These animals are safe and well cared for. A detailed log of services provided to these animals will be available to animal owners once they return home,” Butte County Public Health wrote on Facebook.
The county defended its rescue and shelter protocols as best practices recommended by national animal welfare organizations. NVADG says on its Camp Fire webpage that it encourages the support of national animal rescue groups, which have provided “fresh, trained volunteers” to aid NVADG. These include FEMA, the National Guard, ASPCA and the U.S. Humane Society.
Some of the outside animal aid has been rogue. Motorcycle racer and makeup model Shelina Moreda, a Petaluma native, spent much of November talking her way past law enforcement to help save pets behind active fire lines.
Moreda started assisting animal rescue efforts during the Tubbs Fire, which erupted in Santa Rosa last October. Soon after, she established NorCal Livestock Evacuation and Support, a nonprofit.
That organization posted to Facebook Nov. 22 that its “boots on the ground” volunteer assistance for the Camp Fire was no longer permitted by Butte County.
“We are exceptionally disappointed to learn that evac and care crews will no longer be allowed to assist in feeding and caring for the 1000s of animals stranded in the closed areas,” NCLES wrote.
But Moreda’s riding continued.
Jay, the trapper and rescuer, said NVADG has misled with statements it has released, and said some aren’t happy with the idea of leaving animals in the burned areas.
“Oh, they’re going to ‘shelter in place’? Shelter? What shelter?” he said. “It’s toxic. It’s rained up there, it’s freezing cold.”
NVADG is a non-government-funded agency with no paid employees and no permanent shelters; it provides shelter and evacuation services only during large disasters.
NVADG Vice President Norm Rosene called sheltering in place the “standard of the industry” and the best option for Camp Fire pets.
He added that NVADG is a responding group and does not decide who gets permission to volunteer; that’s up to county emergency management. However, he said it is a dangerous situation that requires rigorous training.
“You can’t just let everyone and their brother go behind the fire line,” Rosene said. “It’s very dangerous back there ... The training is specialized and a lot of groups don’t have that training.”
Rosene said NVADG offers this training annually, in January, but does not have the resources to do so on-the-spot as large disasters are ongoing.
NVADG has established a temporary website showing photos and minimal identifying details for some of the pets still at shelters, but it is not a complete database.
Sarah McCarthy, an equine veterinarian based in the foothills, says she spent five shifts volunteering at the large animal evacuation center in Gridley, and another two or three days doing volunteer field work in mid-November.
The veterinarian went in as part of an “ad-hoc” team with the permission of Butte County, she said.
“They (NVADG) would give us tickets that would say ‘So-and-so at this residence was last seen in the master bedroom,’” McCarthy said. “And maybe Fluffy’s there.”
On one occasion, McCarthy was dispatched to a residence to check on two cats and two parakeets that had not been checked on since the Camp Fire started 12 days earlier.
“The cats were OK. The birds were dead,” she said.
McCarthy said some services can be easily handled by independent volunteers. She ended up visiting one home in Magalia just as the owners returned. Those residents’ horse had survived.
“We were able to bring feed to that horse. So we brought them hay. It’s a very easy problem to solve if people know what’s going on,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy called the Gridley evacuation center well-run for the most part, but said the emergency shelters suffered from a lack of electronic record-keeping.
“It was all on paper,” she said, noting that she has not been able to volunteer since the week of Thanksgiving. “There was no database ... There were animals that were found on a Wednesday and they’re still listed as missing by Friday. I’m spending an hour trying to find an animal that wasn’t there anymore because it’s been located.”
Moreda last month told The Bee that county agencies use “a 3-inch binder thick (with) paper” to track thousands of lost animal reports. “The whole thing is a mess.”
Rosene said NVADG has “basically developed a database” that involves “a lot of paperwork,” which is currently being used to track 600 animals sheltered in place behind evacuation lines.
The current total of about 1,350 animals held in the four shelters is down from a peak of more than 2,000, Rosene said.
McCarthy said priorities for improvement should be in database establishment, animal care in the field and reunification efforts.
“But I’m sure a lot of that is the nature the beast and unavoidable,” McCarthy said.
Reunification has been one of the major issues faced by hundreds of Butte County residents trying to recover lost pets. It’s also one reason given by Butte County, NVADG and the city of Chico for why fewer volunteer agencies should be involved.
“They are sheltering healthy animals in place, which is preferred to bringing them to the various shelters or worse, people’s homes, where their owners may not be able to track them down,” Chico Animal Shelter wrote in a Facebook post.
Shelters more than 100 miles away, including the San Francisco SPCA, reportedly held dozens of Camp Fire pets as of Thanksgiving.
Butte County defended its shelter-in-place protocol in a Nov. 23 update posted to Facebook: “For these animals, caring for them while they shelter in place is better than bringing them to already impacted shelters. These animals are in their own, familiar environment, which is better for their mental health.”