PEOPLE

THE CAT WHISPERER 


Animal rescue is more than a hobby for Toni Ray – it’s a way of life.
By Austin Johnson

The Holiday Farm Fire drew its first fire-filled breath on the evening of September 7, 2020, near the Holiday Farm RV Resort in Blue River, Oregon. For weeks the fire burned, filling the air from the McKenzie Bridge to the coastal town of Florence with hazardous levels of smoke. On October 29 the fire’s containment level rose above 95% and Lane County was finally able to sing the wildfire’s death song.  

But it was a song filled with bitter notes. This important milestone was merely the end of the beginning. The Holiday Farm Fire’s burn zone stretched over 173,00 acres of charred Oregon woodlands and over 700 structures were destroyed. Over 450 were people’s homes, including Dale Hyland’s house in Blue River.

Hyland, like the majority of people living in the path of the blaze, escaped the area with only minutes to spare. The fire was already at what is known as the downtown area of Blue River by the time the Level 3 “Go Now” order was given around 11:30 p.m. Hyland left nearly everything behind, including the three rescue cats in his open garage. There was just no time to get them.
Two of Hyland’s cats, Hezi and Spook One, were found within a few weeks after the fire, but the third, Puff, remained missing in action. So, when he got a call on Valentine’s Day with news that he would be reunited with his furry friend, Hyland couldn’t believe it.

“It was just amazing,” Hyland said. “I thought Puff had perished in the fire for sure, and I just couldn’t believe it. I remember I just kept saying I couldn’t believe it.”

On the other end of the call was Toni Ray. In 2006 Ray lost her home to Pleasant Hill to an electric fire and moved to Springfield. She started rescuing dogs off the streets of her new hometown and became a regular face at the animal control office. One of the officers suggested she take a look at a new temporary program in which volunteers trap feral cats to be spayed or neutered and then release them back into their cat colonies.

“I went to the meeting and next thing I knew, I was in this [spay/neuter] program and worked in this program for a year,” Ray said. “When the program expired, there was still this list of cats and I'm like, well, what's going to happen to all these cats?”

This is when Ray started Community Cat Advocacy Team Springfield (CCATS) to continue with her cat advocacy and rescue, becoming a seasoned cat trapper. Ray did not have any official experience with animal rescue during a natural disaster but Julie Ohashi, the operations manager of E.A.R.S. (Emergency Animal Rescue Services), knew Ray would be a serious asset to the recovery effort when the Holiday Farm Fire started.

“Toni was hand selected for the reason that she is an experienced trapper, which is really huge,” Ohashi said. “But experienced trappers are not super rare in animal rescue communities. What is rare is her level of dedication, and the sheer volume [of trapping] that she does is definitely rare. She was a no-brainer.”

The dedication Ohashi spoke of is real. Ray made her first trip into the burn zone on September 12, braving both fire and some of the worst air quality in the world along with a police or firefighter escort. The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Lane County stayed above 300, sometimes 400, for days on end during the first weeks of the fire, which is extremely dangerous.

“Toni has been on the ground in the fire zone since before just about anybody else was allowed to come back to do emergency animal rescue,” Melanie Stanley said, who lost both her home and business in Blue River. “A lot of people have used the ability to be reunited [with their pets] as a piece of hope and a reason to come back or a reason to still keep moving. She has been invaluable to this area.”
Ray’s hard work has paid off. She has successfully returned over 100 cats to their owners that were lost during the fire, and she is still going. On April 13, Ray reunited Carolyn Gillespie-Vidal with her cat Cricket after being lost for seven months.

Ray’s animal rescue work has helped a lot of people heal from the trauma of the Holiday Farm Fire. McKenzie Fire and Rescue Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews lost her two cats in the fire and was sure they did not survive. Ray rescued and returned both of Plews’ cats on the same day.

“My pets are like my family. I love my pets just like I love my kids,” Plews said. “And getting those pets back after such a traumatic incident is just… there just aren't words.”

Ray is something of a one-woman army when it comes to animal rescue, but that doesn’t mean she is the only person with a dog, or cat, in this fight. CCATS gets help from a handful of volunteers and works closely with executive directors Kelly Coulter and Nicole West of the non-profit S.A.R.A. 's Treasures (Shelter Animal Resource Alliance) in Eugene, as well as several other animal advocacy organizations.  

“Toni’s out there getting cats spayed and neutered, helping animals that are injured, when no one else will,” Coulter said. “She just gets out there and does it.”

Ray brought 40 cats to S.A.R.A. Treasures that she rescued from the burn zone, but S.A.R.A. is a small operation and can only do so much.  

“Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, we have very, very limited actual animal service options.” West said. “When things happen on a Saturday at nine o'clock at night and there's no one else that is really able to help, Toni is there. She doesn't care what time of day it is.”

There is rarely a day when Ray isn’t out along the McKenzie River refilling feeding stations, checking her traps and pulling photos off her game cameras. And she sees no end date on the horizon when it comes to rescuing cats.

“I'm not done yet. The job is not done,” Ray said. “There are still cats out there. I know they are there on camera. So, I'm not done until I'm done.”