Yorkville couple Dee Studler and Ron Mund waited 46 days and received more than 50 phone calls before they received the one that they hoped and prayed would someday come.
Baker, their 9-and-a-half-year-old cat, missing since Oct. 20, was found Dec. 4 at Westminster Presbyterian Church on the far west side of Aurora. Although malnourished, skinny, cold and weak, Baker was alive.
“It’s a miracle that he got found when he did,” Mund said. “I truly believe that he didn’t have another four or five days left in him. He would’ve collapsed somewhere and starved to death.”
Sadly, despite fighting for his life, Baker passed away Dec. 17, almost two weeks to the day he was found.
“This journey of Baker’s did not end the way anyone had hoped,” said Jason Drury, lay pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church. “Yet, he did come home and his owners can rejoice in knowing that they did everything they could possibly do to find their beloved pet and then everything to save him once found. The ending is not happy, but the miracle is in the community that rallied to help a cat find his way home. The miracle is the love that we offer our community and the difference it makes.”
When Baker’s journey began in late October he weighed more than 14 pounds. When he was found in early December he weighed less than six pounds and his body temperature was dangerously low at 94 degrees Fahrenheit. The normal body temperature for a cat is in the 99.5- to 102.5-degree range.
On Oct. 20, Mund had taken Baker and Jacque, one of their other cats, to VCA Aurora Animal Hospital on Galena Boulevard in Aurora to be treated for upper respiratory infections.
Baker received an antibiotic shot before being zippered into his carrier for the ride back home. What Mund didn’t realize was that Baker was able to pull the zipper of his carrier apart, slipping his way out and then through the open car door unseen. Mund also stopped at Jewel-Osco at Orchard Road and Route 34 in Oswego (about 7.5 miles away from VCA) on the way home, so he had no idea where or when Baker had escaped.
According to the Missing Animal Response Network, displaced cats generally don’t travel far. Even outdoor-access cats such as Baker typically travel no more than 340 yards, or a 17-house radius, from their home. But for Baker, he was already miles from home.
Cats don’t help themselves get found either. When a cat is displaced in an unfamiliar area they usually hide in silence and will not meow. It’s their protective measure from predators that makes it difficult for them to be found.
Only Baker knows what he went through during those 46 days, said Dr. Marci Koski, a certified feline behavior and training consultant for Feline Behavior Solutions.
“We never really know what a cat is feeling, so we can only guess,” she said. “With cats being predators and prey, he needed to stay alive, so I would guess he switched to defense mode and was hyper-focused on what was happening around him.”
Countless things outside undoubtedly frightened Baker.
“A cat that’s largely been inside isn’t exposed to all the stuff that’s going on and is going to be overwhelmed,” Koski said. “Humans filter things. When shadows move and we hear birds, we don’t pay attention, but cats don’t filter that stuff out. All the sounds and movements had to be pretty frightening.”
Mund, Studler and several of their friends began searching for Baker as soon as they discovered that he was missing. Their search grew as they placed more than 400 missing cat signs in Kane, Kendall and DuPage counties and communicated frequently with several animal control offices. Community support was fantastic, with their phone beeping daily with different leads.
“Most of the time, they felt it looked like him, but we had a few that were able to take a photo with their phone and send it to us and we could eliminate it that way,” Mund said. “Other times, we’d go out and meet the people and walk around the area [where] they saw a cat, and in other cases we were able to set live animal traps.”
Those traps worked, capturing a handful of domestic cats that belonged to other people, but they also caught some raccoons, possums and a skunk.
“We managed to get [the cats] returned to their rightful owners or persuaded the owners to meet us at the vet and have a chip put in their cats,” Mund said. “We also picked up four or five feral cats.”
Ken Perrin, custodian at Westminster Presbyterian Church, was tending to his work duties when Holly Baker, the PE teacher for Covenant Christian School at the church, spotted an animal outside that proved to be Baker.
“I first saw it outside the gym window and I saw it had a collar so I kept an eye on it, figuring it would make its way back home,” Perrin said. “A few days later, Holly said he was still out there so I tried to approach it, but it scurried away, so then I called animal control. He looked lethargic and it was getting cold. It was down in the upper 20s.”
Quentin Johnson, an animal control officer for Aurora Animal Control, went out after the call from the church. Little did Johnson know that he’d soon be meeting Baker face-to-face.
“He was lying on top of a pile of leaves in a landscaped area,” he said. “I could tell he was lethargic. He got up and walked away but not quickly like most cats do. He tried to jump over a retaining wall that couldn’t have been more than 18 inches high, but couldn’t do it. At that point I got close enough to kind of grab him in my arms and then place him in a carrier.”
Johnson noticed that the cat was still wearing a collar, so he was able to remove it and saw the name “Baker” on the tag along with a phone number. Baker was immediately taken to Orchard Road Animal Hospital in Montgomery.
Baker returned home Dec. 7 but was unable to eat on his own. He was given a syringe filled with medication and food through a tube in his neck to his stomach, but his lung congestion worsened, progressing into pneumonia. Doctors would later find four cracked ribs, and he spent time in an oxygen chamber and then a ventilator.
Baker had someone at his side 24 hours a day at VCA monitoring his condition, while Mund and Studler visited him regularly before he passed away. Sadly, not every story has the happiest ending.
“This is the season of hope, and it is such a testament to faith that Baker’s family never gave up hope on him coming home,” Drury said.
Mund and Studler started a personal blog on Facebook from Baker's perspective to keep people updated on “Baker’s Journey.” On Dec. 17, they posted, “Hello, for the last time. Unfortunately, despite all the care I received from my doctors, my journey has ended in a way no one wanted. But I know I will live on in the hearts and minds of my human family, the memories of my cat family, and the thoughts all of you have sent with your care and concern for me. Thank you. Goodbye and Meow, Baker.”