Published: Feb 23, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Feb 23, 2013 05:37 PM
CHAPEL HILL - It took a community to bring home a cat lost in the chaos of the January fire at University Gardens Condominiums.
UNC doctoral student Emily Bunner, 30, and her partner Kory Stuemke, 24, were reunited with their cat Milagra on Feb. 15 after searching the streets, answering calls about possible sightings and digging through the rubble for nearly three weeks. When the emergency reconstruction worker called about seeing a cat in their condo, she didn’t tell anyone for fear they would get their hopes up.
“There had been so many false alerts,” she said.
But there Milagra huddled, in the burnt remains of her favorite kitchen cupboard. Her fur was matted and covered in soot, the back of her legs were burned, and she had lost about half of her body weight, Bunner said. They took her to the vet and then to their new apartment in Glen Lennox. Milagra hasn’t stopped eating since, she said.
“I think she came back because she thought she didn’t have a lot of time left,” she said.
Milagra – her name means “miracle” in Spanish – and her brother Phoenix were separated at a young age. Bunner and Stuemke adopted Phoenix, and about a year later, they found Milagra at Best Friend Pet Adoption in Cary. She was among only a few cats saved from her previous shelter when it closed.
They brought her home Jan. 27. The next day, Bunner awoke to find the adjoining condo on fire.
Bunner grabbed Phoenix and their 15-year-old cat, Nestor, and threw them in their carriers. They only had time to grab a few possessions before fleeing the building. They couldn’t find Milagra.
After the fire, they searched almost nonstop. Bunner set out seven traps, catching squirrels, a feral cat and her neighbor’s cat a few times. She scrambled through brush, fell in the creek and stepped on nails. A friend, Wendy Lancaster, used a hoe to rake through the ashes and helped her extinguish a mattress that reignited during the search.
As word spread, offers of help and information poured in. A friend designed fliers offering a $200 reward, and Village West residents printed them at a Hillsborough copy shop. Friends, strangers, Triangle shelter staff and animal rescue groups all joined the search.
The worker who found Milagra refused the reward. He said it would be a good story to tell his children, Bunner said.
Milagra hid for two days at her new home, but ran out when Bunner brought Phoenix into the room and they rubbed noses, she said.
The couple’s experience shows it’s important to get the word out and not give up on a lost pet, Bunner said.
“It took a lot of time and daily effort to cover all the possible ways of searching and spreading the word, but she may not have made it much longer if she hadn’t been recognized,” she said.