Animal rescuers seek pets wandering in Lahaina fire’s ruins

Shelly Polson woke up Aug. 8 to see her neighbor’s house engulfed in flames.

The Lahaina resident lived with two dogs, Shadow and Rebel, and has provided refuge to numerous cats in her home near the southeast edge of town. On the day of the Lahaina fire, the indoor cats were hiding, so she simply left the door open for them, grabbed her dogs and leapt into her car.

Polson drove onto the main street in Lahaina and got stuck in traffic as the vehicles of residents fleeing the fire choked the road. Frustrated, she got out of the car and brought her two dogs with her, walking through the smoky streets toward the waterfront until she flagged down a pickup truck and asked the driver if he could take them to a friend’s house where she hoped to shelter.

He drove her to the house, which was in an area not affected by the fire, according to Polson. She entered for only a couple of minutes before realizing the truck was gone — with her dogs still inside.

“That was the last time I saw them,” Polson said. “The next day I called the shelter to report them missing.”

Polson would eventually learn from Maui police that the man who seemingly tried to steal her dogs abandoned them in the truck after it ran out of gas. The fire never reached the vehicle.

Polson is among hundreds of Lahaina residents who lost animals in the chaos of the fire and have spent the last couple of weeks desperately searching for them.

The Maui Humane Society, the island’s only open-admission animal shelter, is leading the rescue efforts, with 187 animals recovered from the burn area as of Tuesday. About 30% of the animals have since been reunited with their families, while the rest remain in the care of the shelter or foster families.

During an Aug. 14 news conference, Maui Humane Society Chief Executive Lisa Labrecque said the organization had deployed field services and veterinary teams daily to track down animals. The field teams go through areas cleared for safety and collect both stray animals and the remains of those that were killed. Every animal found has its location recorded, is checked for identification and scanned for a microchip in order to contact the owner. The cataloging process is done to bring closure to individuals who lost pets during the fire..

Katie Shannon, a spokeswoman for the Maui Humane Society, said the majority of animals in their care are dogs and cats, but they have seen a wide range of creatures rescued.

“Some of the first animals we received were guinea pigs, rabbits, lovebirds, pigs and mini pigs,” Shannon said.

The organization has received more than 1,350 reports of lost animals and estimates about 3,000 animals were initially unaccounted for as a result of the fires. Veterinary staff have treated an estimated 375 animals from the fires.

Maui County officials said the Humane Society was caring for 88 animals at its main emergency shelter as of Aug. 18. An additional 71 animals were being housed by foster families outside of shelters.

Because access is restricted to parts of Lahaina within the wildfire disaster area, authorities have limited search efforts to disaster personnel with guidance from the Humane Society. Residents have not been allowed to enter the disaster area since the fires Aug. 8.

Shannon said the Humane Society had been asking first responders to rescue any animals they encountered. For example, she said officials rescued seven cats while searching burn areas Wednesday.

“We know that there are reports and sightings of animals in the burn zones,” Shannon said. “We are setting up feeding stations to try and draw those animals out.”

The entry restrictions have drawn criticism from independent animal rescuers on Maui who believe they are impeding lifesaving work.

“Every day that goes by, they’re more likely to be dead,” said Sarah Hayes, who runs her own animal rescue on Maui, Kitty Charm Farm.

A cat at Kitty Charm Farm, an independent animal rescue on Maui, has burned paws.

A cat at Kitty Charm Farm, an independent animal rescue on Maui, has burned paws.

(Courtesy Sarah Haynes)

Hayes said she understood the health concerns that led to the closures and had followed all guidelines and restrictions. But she criticized what she saw as the lack of mobilization by authorized personnel to rescue animals from the burn zones.

“The animals are in a toxic environment, disrupting the area they’re trying to preserve,” Hayes said. “What’s the point of letting them sit there?”

Hayes has had some success replicating the Humane Society’s efforts by trying to lure animals out of the burn zones with traps and feeding stations.

Upon hearing from police that her dogs were seen in town, Polson took it upon herself to search for her pets. For two weeks, she checked various locations across the destroyed area, including an empty house near the edge of the burn zone, and waited by the side of the road with bait traps.

Finally, on Tuesday, a police officer directed Polson to where she’d seen her dogs near a bypass outside the burn zones. Polson found Shadow at 1 a.m. the next morning.

“The relief and the weight of this grief was just lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “I just about collapsed, I was just kissing and hugging her.”

Although Rebel is still missing, Polson’s reunion with Shadow has inspired her to remain resolute in her search.

For Hayes, the joy of finding homes for the animals is what makes all the work worth it.

“I believe that the best way we can find healing for some of these people who have lost everything is to get their beloved pets back,” Hayes said. “It’s one of the only things that could bring some happiness to people who are in great pain.”

More information on how to support search efforts can be found by visiting the Humane Society website.

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