UNION— At first, the main priority was putting out the fire. Six months ago on July 9, Jean Stevens, from upstate New York, was heading home with her family after a visit in Union. The camper was packed, but there was smoke coming from somewhere as they traveled along Route 17. They stopped, and found the car being hauled behind had developed a fire under the hood.
If that weren't enough of a disaster, their six-year-old cat, Myla, managed to jump out and ran into the woods west of North Union Road — a nightmare for any family who lives six hours away.
After days of searching, Jean had to go home. But she drove back, again and again until all of her vacation days had been used up. She managed to find Myla once at farm on Overlock Hill Road before a bolt of lightning scared Myla away, and again Jean went back home to New York, without her and brokenhearted.
If there is a playbook on how to find a missing pet, it first starts with a post on a Facebook community Maine-Lost Dogs, Cats & Pets. From there Stevens also posted on a service PawBoost, which allows a free posting and allows the user to spend money on promoting that post to a larger audience.
One of the group members Martha Johnston-Nash said Stevens spent money on Paw Boost to further spread the post about Myla.
“It costs money, but Jean was determined. You know keeping the word out there is imperative to getting people to look.”
With technology and online communities, this is a much more powerful tool than putting up flyers just in the neighborhood.
Several women were instrumental in organizing the first phase of finding Myla including Kathleen Thornton. Mary Butler, of Warren, took it upon herself to create a private Facebook Messenger group of approximately 8-10 members calling it “Team Myla.” “There were a couple of people before me looking for Myla and fielding the initial calls; I just thought it would be easier if we were all on the same group exchanging information.” Team Myla includes: Martha Johnston, Ariel Patten, Katie Hemenway, Beth Earl, Mary Butler, Diane Gallant-Marion and Kathleen Thornton.
During the fall months, there were several false sightings of Myla. Every tip came back to the group, but given that Myla was a fairly common looking torti-tiger, it was difficult to ascertain whether the sightings were of her.
“I got involved around September, October,” Johnston-Nash said. The second successful thing the group did was game cameras on Clarry Hill, Overlock Hill, North Union Road, Pound Hill, Bump Hill and Whittier Farm, where Myla had been spotted. “Mary had Myla’s cage that Jean had given her, so we set the cage out on Overlock Hill, so Myla would be attracted to the smell of it. The camera would pick up pictures of what we thought was Myla, but a lot of times it was was the wrong cat. And we weren’t getting a clear picture of her face. And sometimes it turned out to be the neighbor’s cat.”
By December and January when the cold set in and the snows were deep, most people would have given up, but Stevens wasn’t ready to and neither were “Myla’s Team.”
“I told Jean on her last trip up here at the Whittier Farm that I would be her contact; I had game cameras and I would not give up,” said Butler. “I saw the look on her face and felt the compassion in her heart. I felt if if had been the other way around, she would have done the same for me.”
“I’ve lost two cats to predators myself, and there were a lot of naysayers telling us that it was pointless to keep going. But Stevens was so sure Myla was still alive. Sometimes, certain people can just feel that connection,” said Johnston-Nash.
“I figured if she were no longer alive, that she would come to me in a dream,” said Stevens.”That’s happened with my other animals. But, I knew she was still out there and I was going to get her.”
In a random turn of events, a woman named Ariel Patten, in Union, had been feeding a stray cat for months, without realizing whose it was. Social media, once again, provided the connection, and soon Patten joined Team Myla and made a plan to trap the cat and get a photo. On January 2, one of the game cameras had gotten a clear snapshot the cat’s face.
“I call Ariel ‘The Missing Link,’” said Butler.
On a Facebook account of the story, Johnston-Nash explained:
“Team Myla brought the group together for the first time. Individually we studied the cat's markings against those in the ‘Lost’ picture of Myla, and individually came to the convincing conclusion this was what we had dreamed and prayed for, what Jean had been hoping beyond all hope: Myla was found, alive and well. By the afternoon meeting, the excitement was overwhelming, but caution and prudence told us we needed to be patient and develop a strategy to ensure Myla was caught safely.”
“We knew the cat’s schedule to come looking for food at certain times and we figured we had one shot,” said Butler. “By Sunday morning, we set the trap at Ariel’s house and by 11 a.m. she called me back and said ‘we got her.’”
The third thing that ensured the success of this effort was that Stevens had gotten Myla chipped.
A friend of Myla’s Team, Shannon Nachajko, from Catahoula Rescue, examined the cat and found she was chipped, as well. After a few tries with her chip reader, they retrieved the number: it was a match. Group members then tried to contact Stevens in New York, but she was away from her phone. Everyone was on edge for about a half hour before they got ahold of her. Stevens drove immediately back to Maine.
“When I walked into that room and saw her in the cage, I burst into tears,” said Stevens. “I felt like this tremendous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Even though her running away was an accident, I’d felt so guilty that I hadn’t protected her.”
Myla walked out of the cage and into Steven’s lap, and began kneading her arm. “My heart was dancing,” she said.
“We all watched as Jean came in the room,” said Butler. “It was surreal. Jean sat on the floor and opened the cage and Myla came right out to her. Some of us were fighting back tears. We’d hoped for it for so long.”
Stevens said she still can’t believe how dedicated people in Maine were to finding Myla.
“I was blown away,” she said. Speechless. They didn’t even know me, but between Team Myla and the phone calls and emails I got, I was amazed at this tremendous dedication of Mainers to helping me bring her home.”
Butler said, “I just want to thank everyone who got involved especially the community and farmers in Union who let us set cages and cameras on their land. We all have animals and know how important to us. we’ve all had missing cats and we know the feeling.”
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org