What started as a cozy nap inside a boat four months ago resulted in an incredible journey for a Utah cat, which included a long trek across the Wasatch Mountains in an attempt to be reunited with a family that feared their beloved pet was dead.
Mittens, a black rescue cat with white paws, has been with the Flitton family of Mountain Green, Utah, since he was adopted as a kitten in 2012. Last May, Brandon Flitton, 42, dropped his boat off at a repair shop in Salt Lake City, 35 miles away, not realizing that Mittens had sneaked under the cover earlier to take a nap. When mechanics pulled off the cover, the cat jumped out and ran away.
“When we heard what had happened, we put signs up everywhere and went looking for him,” Cyndi Flitton, 43, tells PEOPLE. “We hoped that he’d recognize our voices and come running because he’s such a sociable, friendly cat.”
Cyndi tried to comfort her daughter, Allison, 14, by telling her that Mittens had probably found a good home with a family in the neighborhood near the boat shop.
“But I figured he was gone forever,” says Allison, “and I worried about him a lot. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.”
Mittens, though, had other ideas.
An outdoor cat with a love for hunting mice and voles and leaving them on the Flittons’ porch as “tokens of love,” Mittens was discovered last month in Alice Puleo’s yard in Park City, Utah, 32 miles east of the boat shop.
“I was unloading groceries and this cat came down the pathway and announced that he was hungry in no uncertain terms,” says Puleo, 60. “He was very skinny and looked a little beat up. He needed some love and attention.”
After taking the cat in, “he ate constantly for four days and slept on a deck chair outside,” Puleo tells PEOPLE. “I made calls and put up signs, but nobody responded. So finally, I decided to take him in to my vet.”
Carl Prior, a veterinarian with the Park City Animal Clinic, scanned Mittens and discovered he had a microchip with the Flittons’ phone number.
“I was stunned — I couldn’t believe it,” says Cyndi when she received a call from Dr. Prior. “How in the world did he end up in Park City?”
Prior told her that he believed the cat had walked, crossing several mountains in the process.
“He was thin for his large frame and the pads of his feet were inflamed and had abrasions,” Prior tells PEOPLE, “and some of his nails were damaged and needed care. I believe that Mittens navigated the streets of Salt Lake City from the west side to the east side, where the mountains begin. From there, he was probably more comfortable with the terrain and instinctively knew which way to go.”
Eventually, he says, “I’ll bet that Mittens would have found his way back home without our help. He’s a real miracle cat. I only wish he had a GPS tracker so we could follow his great adventure.”
Cyndi decided to give Allison a surprise reunion with Mittens and drove her to Park City on the ruse of doing some shopping. Making a stop at the clinic, she told her daughter there was something incredible that she wanted her to see.
Puleo, who was holding Mittens in an exam room, says the cat scrambled to get out of her arms as soon as he heard Allison’s voice.
“The door opened and when he saw her, he hit the floor and leapt across the room to be with her,” she says. “It was such an emotional moment— there weren’t any dry eyes in the room.”
“To see him again was unbelievable — I felt like the happiest girl on earth,” says Allison, who is once again receiving “love tokens” from her curious pet. “I was so happy to see my good friend again.”
“Even though we all gave up,” she says, “Mittens sure didn’t.”