Need a pet rescue in the midst of a Colorado firestorm? There’s an app for that

Mike Neustedter and his family were a thousand miles away from their Superior home on Dec. 30, 2021, as a windswept wildfire tore toward their Original Town neighborhood.

Their 11-year-old cat Coby was inside the home, trapped. The animal was one of the nearly 1,200 pets that didn’t survive the Marshall fire.

“If someone had known pets were in these houses, it could have been a different story. But nobody knew,” said Neustedter, whose dog was spared by accompanying the family on the road trip to Illinois. “We had a cat that no one even knew existed.”

That’s a situation Dave Crawford wants to put into the past. The longtime Colorado animal rights activist has spent untold hours in the past year working on a new app to instantly tie together and alert neighbors about pets that need help in natural disasters.

The app, called Pet Help & Rescue, is set to launch later this month. It will first be available at the Apple Store, and later this winter will be downloadable for Android phones.

“My experience shows that people who are home when disaster strikes are the most likely to get your animals to safety,” Crawford said. “We want animals to survive in much greater numbers than we saw in the Marshall fire.”

A University of Colorado Boulder study released last month estimated that 1,182 pets died in the fire that killed two people and destroyed almost 1,100 homes in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County a year ago.

Crawford, who lives near the Neustedters in Superior, also lost his home to the fire but managed to drive away with his two “elderly cats” in advance of the flames. Looking back, he had enough time to rescue his neighbors’ animals — including two cats, two dogs, a tortoise and a cockatiel — if only he had known about them.

“And that was only in one square block,” Crawford said. “The Pet Help and Rescue app helps you create a trusted network of potential rescuers and quickly and effectively communicate key information to them if and when your pets need to be evacuated.”

The app allows people to list their animals by species, breed and description, with the option to include a photo of the pet. A user can also add any critical information about the animal’s behavior (barks but isn’t aggressive), along with diet and medical needs, like “meds are in the fridge.”

The user then inputs “trusted contacts” into the app, typically neighbors who live nearby. Entry information, like a hidden key or a garage door code, can also be provided.

When an emergency strikes — be it a fire, flood or tornado — tapping the “Get Help Now!” blasts out the information about any trapped pets to all listed contacts.

“Stress can impair decision-making,” Crawford said. “The app will allow you to decide well in advance of a stressful situation who you will turn to if you need help and what information, such as where your pets hide and where their medications are located, you will provide them.”

There is also a non-emergency function on the app, in the event that the pet’s owner is stuck somewhere due to flight delays or closed roads.

Neustedter said his cat sitter tried to make a rescue during the fire but couldn’t get to the house due to gridlock on the roads of south Boulder County, as entire neighborhoods emptied out to escape the approaching firestorm. He said he knew a couple of firefighters who were working the blaze, but in all of the chaos and disjointed information flow, he didn’t think to contact them about his cat.

“When you’re in a situation where you have to scramble, sometimes your brain is not there,” he said. “I regret to this day that I didn’t text them.”

An app like Pet Help & Rescue would have taken the thought out of the chaos and allowed him to get the word out to multiple neighbors with the press of a single button, Neustedter said.

Leslie Irvine, a sociology professor at CU-Boulder and author of the book “Filling the Ark: Animal Welfare in Disasters” who co-authored the study on pets lost in the Marshall fire, said the app just fortifies what is at the root of any animal rescue: knowing your neighbors.

“We can’t rely completely on tech because it ultimately comes down to human connection,” she said. “Being able to set up a trusted network is what’s important.”

But if an app can enable those connections to link smoothly and run quickly in a crisis, “it can only be good,” Irvine said.

“To think every death is attached to a family and their kids, they have a feeling of grief and a feeling of guilt,” she said.

Crawford said the app has been vigorously tested for security and all personal information remains on the user’s phone until the moment the emergency button is pushed and broadcasts the alert. It will be available across the country to help people — and the animals they love — that get caught in wildfires, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes.

“The frequency and severity of disasters are only going to increase, so the need to help animals that are dependent upon us is going to increase along with it,” he said.

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