‘Miracles Occurred That Night’: A Mad Scramble to Save Maui Pets

As flames engulfed his home, Frederick Shaw grabbed Munchkin, one of his five cats, and darted through a cloud of thick smoke gasping for air. The 73-year-old Navy veteran stumbled onto the scorching pavement, which severely burned the palms of his hands.

“I lost consciousness,” he said. “And I let go of the cat.”

A few blocks away, Rafael Ochoa, another longtime resident of Lahaina, the historic seaside community in West Maui, darted into his flaming house. After cramming his two children and his partner into their car, he managed to scoop up their beloved pit bull, Bella. They barely made it out alive.

“I couldn’t leave her,” Mr. Ochoa, 35, said. “She’s family.”

As an inferno fueled by furious winds engulfed Lahaina, survivors made wrenching choices the night of Aug. 8. Scrambling for safety, many took enormous risks to save beloved pets. Others ran from the flames, agonizing over the fate of animals left behind.

As of Wednesday, the Maui Humane Society had received 1,014 reports of missing pets in the wake of the fire and estimated that some 3,000 animals were missing overall. Over the past week, as search teams sifted through piles of debris and ash looking for human remains, a parallel quest to find cats and dogs has drawn hundreds of volunteers.

The Humane Society of Maui has received 1,014 reports of missing pets in the wake of the fire and estimates that 3,000 animals were missing overall.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

On the ground, at shelters and online, animal lovers in Maui and beyond have joined forces, seeing glimmers of hope in the effort to reunite people and their pets amid a torrent of grief and loss.

“The only survivors will be animal survivors,” said John Peaveler, a disaster expert with Veterinarians Without Borders who has been part of the team searching for animals in western Maui in recent days. “We can do something to save those animals.”

Mr. Peaveler said that because of their size and agility, small animals are sometimes better equipped than humans to survive catastrophes. In recent days, he and fellow searchers have found cats that took refuge in storm drains and dogs that managed to outrun the blaze, escaping with burns and scratches.

Veterinarians at the Maui Humane Society had cared for 60 animals recovered in Lahaina at its main clinic as of Thursday, and managed to reunite eight with their families, said Katie Shannon, the charity’s director of marketing and communications.

Those stories have kept Chris Carter, 35, from giving into despair. The day of the fire, he woke up from a nap to find smoke seeping into his home. There was enough time to cram his mother’s Chihuahua, ​​Olalani, into a backpack, he said. But when the heat became unbearable, Rhazo, his docile brindle-colored pit bull, was nowhere to be found.

Destroyed structures in the aftermath of wildfire in Lahaina. Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

Mr. Carter, who works as a cook, said he realized that Rhazo may have perished. But he can’t stop thinking about past cases in which dogs who went missing during hurricanes found their way home several months later.

“He’s really strong,” Mr. Carter said. “I’m hoping the fact that he’s so lovable means he’s with someone who is taking care of him.”

Barrie Matthews, 70, worked fast to bundle several of her animals — including 15 birds, four dogs and three cats — into her car before escaping the fire. But she can’t speak about the ones there was no room for — five cats and a 100-pound tortoise — without breaking down.

“There was no time. And I didn’t have enough carriers for them,” Ms. Matthews, 70, tearfully recalled. “Those poor, sweet animals.”

Some who managed to flee with their pets have new challenges. Mr. Ochoa and his family have been staying with friends in a packed house, where it was difficult to care for their dog, Bella.

On Tuesday morning, he took her to the Humane Society on Tuesday to inquire about alternatives. A staff member offered to help him find a temporary place where she could be boarded, or to place her with a foster family.

Mr. Ochoa burst into tears as he contemplated parting ways with Bella, even temporarily. But he soon concluded the most loving thing he could do was to surrender her to someone who could provide a stable home.

Munchkin the cat was one of the survivors of the fire. Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

“I just want her to be good, I want her to be happy,” he said, as Bella stood still nearby, panting gently. “She’s my baby.”

When Claire Kent returned to Lahaina the day after the fire to check on her house, which sustained significant damage, and on an aunt, who was safe, among the grisly sights that caught her eye were dead cats.

The landscape was apocalyptic, said Ms. Kent, 26, who earns a living taking tourists on a catamaran in West Maui. As she absorbed the ravaged landscape, a loud meow brought her to a screeching halt.

Soon, she spotted a furry figure a few feet away, nestled in a pile of debris, near a building in shambles.

“I scooped him up and immediately, the way he sank into my arms, I knew this was someone’s pet,” she said. “You can tell just by picking up a cat that likes to be held, versus a cat that has never been held in his life.”

Ms. Kent gave the cat water, which it drank readily, and took it with her to central Maui, where she has been staying with a friend. It was a terrible time to look after a wounded, dehydrated, traumatized pet. After all, Ms. Kent had just lost her home. It’s unclear how soon there will be work again. And she was deeply traumatized by the death and destruction she saw all around her in the warm community that had embraced her when she moved to Maui two years ago.

But saving the cat, and possibly finding its owner, felt like a tiny bit of grace within her reach during a dark time.

Claire Kent hugs Frederick Shaw after he was reunited with his cat, Munchkin. Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

“There’s so many ways of taking care of this community,” she said. “Making a miracle happen for one person feels so important.”

After a friend of Ms. Kent’s posted photos of the cat on a Facebook group called Missing Pets of Maui, a neighbor chimed in, saying he was pretty sure he knew the owner. Ms. Kent tracked down the owner at a shelter, where he had been recovering from burn wounds on his hands, arms and legs, and she texted him a photo of the cat.

It was Mr. Shaw, the Navy veteran who had fallen and lost one of cats he was trying to save.

“My brain almost exploded because I’m looking at my cat,” he marveled in an interview. “The cat that I thought I had left behind to die.”

After tripping that night in Lahaina, Mr. Shaw said he managed to get to the shore and jumped into the ocean along with several other people. They banded together on a rocky patch until rescue workers on the ground found them and led them to safety.

On Tuesday, Ms. Kent drove to the shelter where Mr. Shaw was staying, carrying Munchkin in a cardboard box. When Mr. Shaw came out, he sat on the sidewalk, gently reached into the box with a bandaged hand and rubbed his kitty’s back.

“Miracles occurred that night,” Mr. Shaw said, his voice breaking. “Finding my cat is probably the top miracle of all.”

Serge F. Kovaleski contributed reporting.

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