Edelmira Del Valle vividly recalls the early morning hours of September 27, 2017, when she awakened to a five-alarm fire that had broken out on the top floor of her apartment building in the Bronx.
As the ceiling collapsed onto her bed, she grabbed her Chihuahua, Puppy, who was sleeping beside her. Frantically searching for her cat, Peanut, a 10-year-old orange tabby, she and her family were soon forced to exit the building.
“Peanut must have gotten scared and hid,” Edelmira recalls. “I thought I lost him—that he had died in the fire.”
While the human residents of the 80-plus unit building escaped relatively unharmed, reports of pets who were left behind soon began to circulate. New York City Emergency Management’s (NYCEM) Animal Planning Task Force alerted the ASPCA, a Task Force Partner. Lisa Kisiel, Community Engagement Case Manager, and Mohamed “Mo” Khaled, Community Engagement Caseworker, visited the scene to talk with residents who were displaced. They made a list of pets believed to still be in the building, including Peanut.
The next day, Molly Giovanatti, Administrative Manager for the Field Investigations & Response (FIR) team, and Evan Dunn, Community Engagement Coordinator, received permission to enter the building.
Left:Molly Giovanatti, Administrative Manager for the ASPCA’s Field Investigation & Response team, and Evan Dunn, Community Engagement Coordinator, search for Peanut in the burned apartment building. (Photo courtesy NYC Emergency Management), Right: Evan Dunn, Community Engagement Coordinator for the ASPCA, was one of Peanut’s rescuers.
“It was complete darkness and destruction,” says Evan, describing the scene as unlike anything he’d ever witnessed before. “The rooms were full of charred rubble, and we had to climb over piles of it to look for people’s pets. When I went into Edelmira’s apartment for the first time, I assumed there was no way Peanut could have survived.”
Molly and Evan rescued three turtles but couldn’t find Peanut. So Evan’s co-worker Isadora Peraza-Martinez set a humane trap, holding out hope that the cat had survived.
“The next day, Evan returned with Mo, not knowing what to expect. “To our great delight we found a little terrified orange cat in the trap,” Evan explains. “I was so happy we got him.” Later, with assistance from Brett Asher, NYCEM Citywide Interagency Coordinator, Mo and Evan rescued another cat, as well.
After taking Peanut to the ASPCA Animal Hospital (AAH), Mo and Evan tracked down Edelmira at a temporary shelter where she was staying. She then consented to having Peanut examined by our veterinarians, who treated him for burns and extracted several of his teeth.
Brielle Rubinetti, an Animal Care Technician, readied Peanut for his reunion with Edelmira.
“After going through such a traumatic ordeal and thinking her baby was gone, I can’t imagine how Edelmira must have felt,” said Melissa Alejandro, Administrator for the ASPCA’s Animal Recovery Center (ARC), where Peanut was housed during treatment. Melissa helped coordinate visits for Edelmira to see Peanut, and says she never missed a single one.
“She was always very eager to see Peanut and talked about how much she missed him,” Melissa explains. “He would cuddle up right next to her while she told me her favorite stories about him. They were so happy together.”
Edelmira visiting Peanut.
“It was obvious in our communications and visits with Edelmira how much she loved Peanut and how grateful she was to have somewhere safe for him to stay,” adds Dr. Julie DiMeglio, a veterinarian who oversaw Peanut’s care.
“Our collaboration across teams and disciplines enabled us to respond effectively and provide necessary medical care and housing for Peanut and other animal victims of this fire, as well as give relief and comfort to pet owners as they worked on rebuilding their lives after this disaster,” added Kris Lindsay, Director of ARC.
The ASPCA’s Animal Recovery Center staff packed supplies for Peanut and his reunion with Edelmira.
After recuperating from his injuries, Peanut was then fostered by ASPCA volunteers. Finally, just before Christmas, and nearly three months to the day of the fire, Edelmira, who had been living in a hotel, came to the ASPCA a final time to get Peanut.
“Do you think he’s forgotten me?” Edelmira asked Melissa. Melissa assured her he hadn’t. Edelmira, a 64-year-old retired nurse, explained how she found Peanut on the street when he was a kitten. She took him in and, up until the fire, the pair had been inseparable.
Melissa Alejandro, Administrator for the ASPCA’s Animal Recovery Center (ARC), with Edelmira and Peanut.
“He’s been through a lot,” says Edelmira, expressing her gratitude to the ASPCA and Peanut’s fosters. “But it feels like a gift, having him back.”
While Edelmira continues to look for permanent housing with the help of her son, Cesar, a friend is taking care of Puppy.
“I am so grateful the ASPCA played a part in keeping Peanut and Edelmira together,” Melissa says. “Seeing these two finally reunited; we couldn’t have asked for a happier ending.”