Errands of Mercy

All AROUND THEM THE NIGHT SKY glowed the color of hell. Sitting in a pickup truck in Southern California’s Yerba Buena Canyon, Sherman Sherman, 35, and boyfriend David Jaks, 28, were wailing anxiously for the brushfire 200 yards in front of them to pass. “We could feel the heat pounding in on us,” says Sherman. “You could feel your pores opening up.” But Sherman and Jaks weren’t thinking about saving their own skins. They were there to rescue the animals at the nearby Westlake Pet Motel, which lay directly in the path of the blaze.

Following two fire trucks, the pair finally got to the motel just before dawn. There, along with other volunteers, they began a frantic effort to evacuate the 23 cats and dogs into a horse trailer and other vehicles. “The fire was so close, we ended up stuffing cats in bags to make carrying them easier,” says Sherman. “By the time we were done, the truck looked like The Beverly Hillbillies.”

The fires that began raging through Southern California two weeks ago took a heavy toll on property. In the first onslaught, some 168,000 acres were scorched and 731 homes destroyed. New blazes last week incinerated hundreds of more homes and claimed both animal and human victims. Screenwriter-director Duncan Gibbins (Eve of Destruction), who suffered burns over 90 percent of his body while trying to rescue a cat from his Topanga Canyon home, became the first fatality.

No one knows how many animals were killed, but the number would surely have been far greater had it not been for the evacuation efforts mounted by scores of volunteers. They spent days and nights scouring the area for animals who had either been abandoned by owners fleeing the inferno or who were too big to be carried away by car.

Even celebs got involved. Tom Selleck helped neighbors in the Thousand Oaks area load horses into trailers. Robert Wagner opened his Hidden Valley ranch to anyone who needed a place to park animals. And Guns N’ Roses front man Axl Rose, who heard about Sherman’s efforts through a friend, sent her $100 to help defray the $1,000 in expenses she ran up during the fire and its aftermath. He even offered to take in an abandoned chinchilla.

Sherman, who owns a feed store in Malibu, has been rescuing animals for 15 years during Southern California’s frequent floods and fires. When Santa Ana winds fed the flames on Oct. 26, she and Jaks, who works as a dog groomer, were among the first to spring into action. Over the next four days, they crisscrossed the canyons, trying to slay one step ahead of the flames. When it was all over, they had driven more than 700 miles on almost no sleep—and saved a veritable menagerie: dogs, cats chickens, rabbits, goats, tarantulas, iguanas, peacocks, fish, pigs and more than 45 horses. “It was a den of mayhem around here,” says Sue Shack, who stayed at the feed store to field calls from animal owners. “I ended up taking 11 dogs home with me. We had people carting goats around in their cars. You know what a goat can do to your upholstery?”

Not all the rescue attempts ended happily. At times animals that had been burned or whose fur was on fire had to be killed with a shovel blow. In other cases, Sherman and Jaks drove up to houses, only to discover owners who insisted on keeping their animals with them. Sherman finds that attitude contemptible. “Animals aren’t brave by nature,” she says. “All they want to do is survive. Fire and smoke scare them in ways I couldn’t tell you.”

But there are exceptions, as it turned out. On the second day of the fires, Sherman and Jaks were trying to save Cinderella, an 800-pound hog, and Hamony, a 400-pound Vietnamese potbellied pig. “Cinderella wasn’t going to move,” says Sherman. Jaks slipped a lariat around the hog’s neck and began to tug. With the assistance of some well-placed kicks, Cinderella and Hamony were eventually coaxed into the truck.

When the fires initially subsided, Sherman and Jaks carried bird seed and corn into the burned-out canyons for wild creatures still at large. But the animal owners seemed most grateful. “They made the difference,” says Anne Soble, whose two burros, Rosencranz and Ariel, were among the evacuees. “The potential for animal mortality was enormous.”



Related Articles