“We just kept counting how many animals we could put in here. And then they just start to come, and people came…we were no longer an adoption center, we were an evacuation center,” Fennell said.
According to Fennell, it was a struggle making space for so many pets. All adoptable animals had to be transported to other shelters, such as Silicon Valley Humane Society, in order to be able to make room for all the “emergency board” pets.
“We had cats and dogs and turkeys and birds.Our whole lobby was filled. We put parrots in people's offices; all of the adoption rooms were filled with evacuees and every [dog] run was too,” Fennell said. “We wanted to be prepared because we didn't know how many more would come.”
The shelter stayed open late every day of the week during the peak of the crisis, allowing evacuated people to come in regularly to visit their boarded pets. Even evacuated shelter employees came to work in order to assist with the process. One such employee was the Humane Society Marketing Coordinator, Julia Lamont, who was house-sitting in Glen Allen for her father and was evacuated in the middle of the night.
“It took us two hours to get to Novato, I got a couple hours of sleep then got up and came here. It was helpful to be around other people who were experiencing something similar. It was almost helpful to be distracted here and not just sit there and refresh the sheriff’s reports,” Lamont said.
Now, three weeks after the fires started, only 33 of the original 450 plus emergency boarded animals remain in the shelter. According to Fennell, these animals’ homes were destroyed in the fire. The majority of the 13 families who own these animals have been in contact with the shelter, but there are still two who have been out of reach since the animals were dropped off.
“I was surprised on Monday, when I went through the paperwork, how many people actually lost their homes of the animals we had here. I was thinking just a few, but it was quite a bit. Those are the ones that are still here,” Fennell said.
Those who took in animals during the emergency expressed similar feelings of heartache for the families and animals affected by the fires. Fennell was particularly moved while witnessing families leave, then later reunite with their animals. According to Fennell, watching the devastation hit close to home as a resident of Cotati, a parent and a pet owner.
“They didn’t know if their house was gone. It makes me cry a little bit, because you had this little boy who had no idea what was going on and he’s leaving his dog, and his mom is trying to explain that they were coming back for the dog. That’s what got me, was the little boy and picturing my son,” Fennell said.
The Humane Society has dealt with natural disaster evacuees before, according to Fennell. The shelter took in animals and assisted during Hurricane Katrina in 2004. However, this case was different.
“For some staff, this was very personal. Katrina was much different because we were so far, all we saw was what was on the news. But this was like, you smelled it. I’ve never experienced that, in that we were having something so personal happen,” Fennell said.
Schifrin and Dominguez also felt sympathy for their friends and neighbors who evacuated.
“It was really sad, because I know that the family already has a lot that they have to deal with and then this on top of it. That was really upsetting to watch. They had a pretty positive attitude about it, which helped,” Dominguez said.
Schifrin hopes that people will remember that just because the fires have been contained, it doesn’t mean that all is well. According to Schifrin, it’s important to remember that for many, the fires were just the beginning of a long journey to recovery.
“The story is just starting for them. Yeah, the fires happened, that was an emergency and we had a week of absolute panic. And now everybody else who lost their homes, who lost pets, who lost people, what are they doing? Where they going?” Schifrin said.
However, while the aftermath is a heavy scene of destruction, there was a gleam of hope that emerged from the ashes. Schifrin and Fennell both recognize how quickly the communities came together with good intentions at heart, and how lucky the evacuated animals are to be sheltered and in good care.
“It was heartbreaking, it was rejuvenating, it was uplifting, it was sad. People would come down here and say, ‘It just took us four hours to get here.’ We'd ask, ‘Did you lose your house?’ and they'd say, ‘I don't know.’ We really didn't ask a lot of questions. [We just told them] ‘your animals are safe, take care of yourself,’” Fennell said.