House Fire and the Role of a Pet Sitter

Why would you want to hire a professional pet sitter instead of just taking your pets to a kennel? 

I can give you numerous reasons why the services I provide are necessary and tell you the benefit of having a professional care for your pet,  but the story I have posted below probably could give you a different insight.  It’s from a fellow pet sitter in the Portland, Oregon area and if you have a moment, please take the time and read her story.  She’s a member of one of the pet sitter groups I belong to and boy, reading through her story brought back a lot of memories for me because we had a house fire in July 2008.  I recall the adrenaline rush and the quick thinking I did to make sure my daughter and my pets made it out safely.  So without any further delay…
___________________________________

I know that everyone here in our little group of “Portlandpetsitters ”
knows how important our jobs are. But I wanted to tell you all about
my day yesterday, and remind us all WHY what we do is so important.

I took on a new client for a job starting on July 1st. My
questionnaire / contract is 8 pages long (which some people think is
excessive), and includes a veterinary release and questions like,
“Where is the breaker box? Where are your cat carriers? Where are
your fire extinguishers? Do your cats have favorite hiding places?”

Fortune favors the prepared, and I knew this was important information
to have “just in case”. I didn’t realize my “just in case” was coming
on July 3rd.

On that day, I was running 45 minutes late to my one hour PM visit
with the 3 cats in the Alameda district. I can count on one hand the
number of times I have been *that* late for a visit in 3 and a half
years. It just doesn’t happen. I am on time or early- always. The
day before the job started my client sent me an email to let me know
that she had hired a crew to remove the lead paint from the exterior
of her home in “an environmentally friendly” way. I wasn’t worried
about it because they would not have access to the interior of the
house, so no big deal.

When I arrived for the first visit, I found out that their method
included using propane(?) fired torches to heat the paint then scrape
it off. This seemed vaguely wrong to me, but I researched it on the
internet that night and found that this is an accepted process…
although people usually use heat guns and not an open flame.
In retrospect, there is probably a pretty good reason for that. 🙂

At any rate, I was about 40 minutes into my visit with the kitties.
They have to be in separate parts of the house because the 3-legged
boy, Jake, has FIV. The other 2, Domino and Mista, are relatively
healthy- but Domino has bouts of IBS, and Mista is VERY shy. I had
worked hard on the previous visits to bring her out of her shell a
bit. And it was working. She was meeting me at the door when I
arrived and rubbing against my legs. Suddenly, the paint removers
started beating on the door and shouting, ringing the doorbell
repeatedly. I put Jake down and opened the door and saw just a wall
of water pouring down from the arch over the entryway. I couldn’t see
anyone, so I shut the door. I went around to the window and tried to
figure out what was going on. About that time, another man was
beating on the side door to the house. I went out that way and he was
yelling at me in rapid fire Spanish. I started to smell smoke, then
thought about the water I had seen before.

Feeling a little slow on the uptake and needing confirmation,
I asked him in my 12th grade Spanish, “Es la casa en fuego?!?!
(Is the house on fire?!)” He said, “Si!” and disappeared back
around the house. I went back inside and started looking for
the cats while dialing 911. Amazingly, 911 put me on hold,
which gave me time to round up Domino, who was standing
peacefully on the dining room table, and put him in the first carrier
I could grab, Jake’s. I couldn’t find Jake, I figured he had run
upstairs when all the noise started. He likes to hide up there.
I got through to 911 (FINALLY!!) and gave them my client’s address,
informed them that the house was on fire, that I was inside and so
were 3 cats. The 911 lady told me to get out of the house, bless her
heart. Right about now was when the smoke alarms started going off.
I have to admit I was completely freaked out, but pretty focused in
spite of that. My only thought was that I had to get the cats and get
out. I finished up with 911, grabbed Domino and took him out the back
door (where the fire wasn’t). I screamed at the painters “Ayudeme!
(Help me!)” and when they came I gave them Domino and told them “Dos
mas gatos en la casa. (Two more cats in the house.)” I know, I know,
my Spanish is probably awful. Anyway, then I went back in for Jake
and Mista.

Mista likes to hide in the basement, so I knew she was safer than
Jake. I headed upstairs, and the smoke was already filling up the air
there. I looked everywhere for Jake, but couldn’t see him because my
eyes were watering so hard and I couldn’t breathe. I went back down
and a man was at the door telling me that there was an attic fan that
was pulling in air and helping the fire to grow and I needed to shut
power off to the house at the breaker box. I ran down to the basement
garage and turned off everything there was to turn off after I opened
the electric garage door. (I figured the fire department would need
to get in that way.) I yelled up from the driveway that the electric
was off, and went back in to look for Mista. Of course, the house,
especially the basement, was completely pitch black now, and I
couldn’t find her. Just brilliant. The gentlemen from the fire
department had arrived and were telling me to get out and stay out.
But, I knew where the carriers were so I ran back into the garage (one
of the safest places in the house) to get them. I went out and called
the client and told her what was going on. I’ve never heard someone
begin to cry so fast. My heart was breaking for her. I was shaking
so hard I almost dropped the phone. That’s adrenaline for you, I
suppose.

I found a firefighter and grabbed him by the arm and told
him that there were two cats inside, and they had to get them. I gave
him one carrier and gave the other to another fire fighter and told
them exactly where to look. “Jake is a 3 legged cat, he will be
hiding somewhere upstairs, probably the bedroom at the end of the
hall. Mista will be hiding in the basement, probably towards the back
of the house.” Then I sat down on the sidewalk away from the house
with Domino and tried to think of what else I could do. I couldn’t
believe this was happening. The roof was fully engulfed at this
point, and it was pretty apparent that my client’s house was going to
be history. Keep in mind now that I have only known her for 3 days.
And it’s looking like I am going to have to be the one to tell her
that her house is totaled and I can’t get to 2 of her cats. As I was
trying to wrap my mind around this, a kind hearted neighbor from two
streets away offered to take Domino to get him away from the smoke and
the noise, and once I got his name and address I let him and his wife
take Domino.

I was left alone to anxiously watch the house, waiting for word about
Jake and Mista. Jake came out first, safe in the arms of Portland’s
finest. We both worked to put him in his carrier… to say he was not
pleased with this turn of events was an understatement! Then Mista
came out, safe in her carrier and being carried by another of the
wonderful firemen. I just want to take a moment to say that I can’t
thank the Portland Fire Department enough for all that they did. They
are the best bunch of guys you could ever hope to have supporting you
in an emergency. Anyway, I bundled up both of the cats by my spot on
the sidewalk and called my client. “We got them!! We got all
three!! They are out and they are safe!!!” We both spent the next
few minutes crying our eyes out with relief. I locked Jake and Mista
(who each only had cardboard carriers that were a bit wet- too flimsy
to carry very far to the kind neighbor’s house) in my car in separate
areas- remember, Jake has to be quarantined. The same kind hearted
neighbor took me to see Domino and let me drink some water at his
house with him and his wife. I checked on Domino and found that he
was fine. I took a few minutes to gather my thoughts and then went
back to my client’s house.

As I see it, after safeguarding all three cats, my job as a
professional at this point was to try to help safeguard my client’s
possessions, then help the fire department figure out how it happened,
and then answer any questions they had. I talked with an arson
investigator and gave her my information, told her what I saw and
heard, and gave her the information I had written down from the side
of the paint removal crew’s trailer (name, phone number and CCB
number). Incidentally, by this point they had all magically
disappeared. I gave her my client’s name and cell phone number. I
talked with the man from Pacific Power and told him that I had shut
off the power at the breaker, and he told me what work they had done
and gave me information to give to my client about what sort of
inspections would be needed before she could have it turned back on.
I talked with the fire chief and made sure he knew that I would need
to get back into the house to get my paperwork, and any belongings my
client wanted me to get. He told me as soon as they cleared the
place, I would be the first one in. Throughout the four hours I was
there, I talked with the client multiple times- taking notes on
important points. We came up with a plan for where the cats would
stay, how I would gain access to that residence, and where their food
and other necessary items were kept. We made a plan for what things
she wanted out of the house, where they were and what was most
important. We got her files out so she could get her homeowner’s
insurance information (it’s not like you usually carry that stuff with
you!). In the meantime, I kept checking on Jake and Mista in my car,
which was encircled with fire trucks. Working with the fire
department, I was able to go in and we were able to recover almost all
of the materials she had said she wanted, before the water and smoke
had damaged them too badly. Working with my client’s handyman and a
disaster recovery specialist she hired through me and the handyman
over the phone, we made sure her house was boarded up and locked
because there are people in this world that listen to fire department
scanners just specifically to loot houses after the fire department
leaves. I handed out my business card to all of my client’s neighbors
and asked them that if they saw anything suspicious to please call
911, then call me.

After recovering as much as I could from the house and giving it to
the disaster recovery company for safeguarding, and picking up Domino
from the neighbors house, I went to Fred Meyer’s to get a new litter
box because there was only one at the house the 3 cats were going to
be going to. It was about 9:30 p.m. I got everything they would
need, then spent the next hour and a half driving them out to my
client’s boyfriend’s house in Forest Heights- this is where Jake lives
most of the time. I gained access, and got the cats situated in their
new places. I took extra time to pet them and love on them so they
would know they were safe and sound in their new space.

Then I went to the last three client visits of the night- very late-
but I got them all done… three chickens, one dog walk (for a sweet
girl who, thankfully, has a doggie door at her disposal), and two
kitties who just need to be fed once a day. I finished about 1:15
a.m. I picked up my husband at the end of his work shift at 1:30 a.m.
and went back to the house. I worked with the disaster recovery
people, who were still there trying to cover the roof with plywood,
again to get access to parts of the house I hadn’t been able to go in
while the fire department was there. I got Domino’s medicine, the
canned food that had not been sitting in water, and some dry food that
had been safe in a drawer in the basement. Almost everything else was
soaked or smoke damaged. Did you know that the water used to put out
a fire becomes acidic? And it will etch metals, like jewelry, and
glass? Neither did I. But I sure do now.

I went home at about 2 a.m.- sweaty, scratched up and bruised (I still
don’t know where some of these came from!), smelling like sulfur and
smoke, with a sore throat and eyes from the smoke and exhausted. And
I mean really exhausted. But, my clients are safe. That is all that
matters.

Today, in between other client visits, I went shopping for new cat
beds, new cardboard scratchers, catnip and some toys for Domino and
Mista. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I could do today to
get the kitties comfortable in their new space. I replaced as much of
their stuff as I could. I got extra litter pan liners and litter so
the client won’t have to shop for them when she returns. Remember,
she is going to have to re-buy everything she lost… clothes, shoes,
everything she needs for her toddler. Everything that wasn’t in her
suitcases when she left on vacation. She shouldn’t have to worry
about shopping for the kitties right away. I talked with her about
alerting the post office not to deliver mail to her house, and told
her how to change her address online (make sure you have a credit card
available!). I called her handyman to make sure he would recover
other items she might want or need, intercept any mail that got
through the address change and that he would water the plants I was
going to water since he was going to be there everyday with the
disaster recovery people. I visited the cats twice today, once during
the fireworks to make sure they were calm and felt safe… and that
their new house didn’t catch on fire. (I’m a little paranoid at this
point, I guess.)

I will be there for Domino, Jake and Mista until their folks are able
to return. I am a professional and I am responsible for them. I will
be doing everything I can think of to make them happy, comfortable and
keep them feeling safe and protected. That is my job. It’s what I
love to do. And it’s very important.

I had about 4 minutes total to make important decisions and take
actions that ultimately ensured that the cats lived and were healthy.
(Thank God and the Portland Fire Department!) I had to make choices
about what I could safely do and what I had to leave for other, much
more qualified people, to do. I had to subsequently make multiple
decisions with sketchy information and under a tremendous amount of
pressure. And I had to relay a very large amount of information to my
client over multiple phone calls in relatively chaotic conditions.
She had to know that she could trust me to make accurate assessments
about the situation and give her good advice. I remember once that
someone on this board was told by a client that “a responsible middle
schooler could do your job.” I’d love to meet the middle schooler who
could have pulled off the day that I did yesterday. Put simply, days
like this are what separates us, professional pet sitters, from the
“responsible middle schoolers” of the world- however many there may be.

Lastly, I just want to say thank you to everyone on this board for
being here and contributing, for being supportive of other pet
sitters- instead of competitive and back biting, and for understanding
that being a professional pet sitter is an important and worthy thing
to do with your life. It’s nice knowing that there are folks out there
who will understand when I say that I was terrified for my client’s lives.

And who won’t think I was an idiot for going
back in the house. You all know why I had to go back in there. There
was never any choice. It’s who we are. You all will know that I am
telling the truth when I say that I never once thought about getting
hurt myself, that I was only thinking about getting the cats. You all
know why. Like I said, it’s who we are.

Once, when I told a new acquaintance that I was a pet sitter/dog
walker, he responded with surprise by saying, “That’s a REAL job?!?!”

Yes. Yes it is. I may never make a million dollars, and it may not
always feel like work, but it is a real job. And it takes real
professionals.

Thanks for listening. I hope that this helps everyone make informed
choices if they are ever faced with a similar situation. And I hope
none of you ever have to have a day like mine!

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