Laura Carlson believes cats know how much their owners love them.
And the Gig Harbor woman believes that’s what kept alive a 12-year-old declawed tabby cat with a heart murmur while he was lost 40 days in Montana.
“I just know he was looking for me,” said Carlson, owner of Harbor Hope Cat Rescue.
Captain went missing on Sept. 8 when it got loose from a 66-year-old woman who had owned the cat for about four years. The woman was moving to Alabama and stopped for a night at a hotel in Butte, Montana. When the woman couldn’t retrieve the cat, she continued east and sent a text message to Carlson, who had watched the cat for the previous four months.
“He is a house cat who has been declawed and is not used to being outside,” Carlson said. “It just broke my heart to think of him out there.”
From 600 miles away, Carlson launched an extensive search effort.
She bought wildlife cameras that were set up by volunteers in woods near the hotel. She had multiple rounds of automated calls and pet amber alerts sent out to the Butte community. She coordinated search parties via Facebook. She contacted local media outlets, and volunteers posted hundreds of fliers.
Traps were set up and Carlson sent boxes of her shirts and blankets in hopes the scent would attract Captain.
As summer gave way to fall and temperatures dropped, Carlson and the volunteers didn’t lose hope. Even after three snowfalls, the search continued.
“Saving him became my full-time obsession,” Carlson said. “... People kept saying somebody must have picked him up, but I knew he was still out there.”
Carlson was amazed that dozens of strangers in Butte spent so much time looking for Captain. One, Theresa Froehlich, took time off from her job at Montana Tech to help and became Carlson’s contact.
“I feel like I have a new friend for life,” Carlson said. “She was tireless.”
Captain kept giving searchers hope, appearing occasionally on footage from the wildlife cameras.
By mid-October, the forecast looked bleak. “A big snowstorm was coming in,” Carlson said. “He would not have lasted through the weekend.”
Carlson coordinated four people to watch her shelter and drove to Butte with a friend, Erin Reetz of Fox Island.
“I just felt sick,” she said.
She arrived late on the evening of Oct. 16 and was searching the woods by 5:30 the next morning. She scoured the woods, crawling over and under logs and happening upon several homeless encampments.
On the second day of intense searching, Carlson was exhausted when she noticed a cat around the corner from the hotel.
“I said, ‘There’s a cat,’ ” Carlson said. Then she realized who it was.
She sat near Captain and started talking to him.
“I could see every bone in his body,” she said.
Scared, Captain took off and Carlson tried to follow.
She went to her car and grabbed a container of treats. She set them out and cried, “It’s dinner time for good kitties,” the way she always announces dinner at the shelter.
Captain ran toward her, but stopped on the far side of a drainage ditch. “He didn’t stop staring at me,” she said. But when Carlson tried to cross the ditch, the cat ran off.
Carlson set a trap for him and by 11:15 p.m. on Oct. 18, Froehlich joined Carlson and Reetz. Armed with flashlights, Carlson retraced her steps from earlier in the day and found him huddled among some pallets near a dumpster.
When she moved the pallets, Captain took off again, but this time headed toward Froehlich and Reetz. “I heard Theresa yell, ‘Erin! Grab him! If you miss, I got him,’ ” Carlson said.
Captain lost his footing and Erin held him down. Seconds later, Carlson scooped him into her arms.
Captain was stiff and scared. Then, “he looked at me and every muscle relaxed,” Carlson said.
By 1 a.m., Captain was at a pet emergency room. He weighed just 5 1/2 pounds, down from 13. A veterinarian noted there were small pieces of gravel in his stomach.
When it was time for Carlson to travel back to Gig Harbor, the vet said Captain wasn’t healthy enough to go. He first needed to gain some weight and pass a blood test.
On Tuesday, nearly two months after his adventure began and two weeks after his rescue, Captain was finally home, sleeping on pillows at Harbor Hope Cat Rescue.
“All I want people to know from this is to not give up on their pets,” Carlson said.
Cats often live to be 18, Carlson said, but Captain won’t be adopted again.
His Butte adventure was Captain’s second brush with death. Several years ago, his previous owners dropped him off at a University Place vet and asked for him to be euthanized. Instead, the vet called Carlson.
“I don’t know what all happened out there (in Montana),” Carlson said, “but Captain is spending his last seven lives with me.”