Shortly after the Holiday Farm fire decimated the Oregon towns of Blue River and Vida in early September this year, Katie Albright headed to the burn zone with an animal trapper and two firefighters. “A big house on the river was still standing, with a cat inside,” she says. “The power was out, it was dark and we had a six pm curfew. The house was huge, and we couldn’t find the cat. Finally, I told the team, ‘Let me bring in Franklin.’”
Franklin is Albright’s three-year old Dachshund/Beagle mix, adopted from a Colorado shelter. With him, she completed a 10-week remote cat-detection course through Missing Animal Response Network, which trains dogs to detect the scent of lost felines.
In the midst of the wildfires blazing across Oregon in September, Albright hooked her pop-up camper to her vehicle and headed into the choking smoke and ash with Franklin to help recover people’s pets. He found the cat in the big house on the river almost instantly.
“It was under the bed, super-scared and super-stressed out,” Albright says. Still, she and the trapper were able to catch the cat and return it to its owner.
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Missing Animal Response Network provides contact information for 31 pet detectives across the United States—dogs and owners skilled at trailing and locating both felines and canines. Initially, Albright hoped Franklin would be able to trail and detect all lost pets. “But the reward for a trailing dog is to play with another dog,” she says, “and Franklin’s not great with other dogs.”
Instead, he’s an expert at locating “target cats”—known pets gone missing—and feral kitties. She’s been working him at burn sites on a 15-foot lead made of BioThane so it doesn’t get caught on bushes or rubble. “I’m in awe of watching him work,” she says. “He runs around with the lead, and I can step on it if I need to. His ‘tell’ is that he goes stiff. He’s this little tank. He’ll brace himself, and his little tail will curl up, and he’ll just stop. He’s funny to watch.”
In 2016, Albright had been working as a pet sitter when a Corgi in her hometown of Nederland, Colo., went missing. The owners put up giant neon posters and a pet detective came out with her dog-detection dog. Albright asked if she could shadow the woman.
“It was snowy, 8,500 feet up and she had these Hounds—all of them climbing over fallen trees trying to find this dog,” she says. “I was fascinated.”
When the Cold Springs fire broke out near Nederland that same year, a firefighter/paramedic couple working the site lost their Saint Bernard. Albright jumped at the opportunity to help. “The town allowed us to turn the middle school gym into an evacuation center for people and their pets,” she says. “We never found the dog, but my whole world changed.”
She adopted and trained Franklin. Then, she moved to Bend, Ore., to be closer to family and found herself at the epicenter of another state’s wildfires.
In the first weeks after the Holiday Farm fire and the Almeda fire farther south, Albright and Franklin found and trapped several live cats and returned them to owners who’d lost their houses, cars and personal possessions. Late one night, he found a cat—a tabby named Tigger. Without any place to put Tigger, Albright had to bring her into the trailer in a pet carrier.
“Franklin lay on the edge of the bed, shaking, all night,” Albright says, laughing. “It was like he was saying, ‘There’s a cat, Mommy!’ He shook and the cat meowed until morning, when the owner came to pick her up.”
These days, Albright and Franklin have the grim task of locating deceased cats in the debris. “It’s terrible and sad, and it’s important work,” she says. “Finding these cats brings the owners closure. They’re able to cremate their pet, or otherwise take care of them properly.”
Albright doesn’t charge for Franklin’s cat-detection services. Friends set up a GoFundMe site to raise money for gas, food and lodging, and for traps, bait and surveillance cameras to mount near nighttime feeding stations. She’s out of funds now, but dreams of buying Franklin a pair of Kevlar booties so he can work around the shattered windows of burned-out cars in which frightened cats tend to hide.
On September 21, she posted a picture of Franklin on her Facebook page, in honor of his third birthday. “He’s been doing good work on the field on the Holiday Farm fire and we hope to continue with our cat rescue, trapping and recovery efforts in Oregon for as long as needed,” she wrote. “Franklin says: DON’T GIVE UP. There is always hope.”
To contribute to Albright and Franklin’s cat-recovery service in Oregon, visit their GoFundMe site.