After Justin Jones, a cowboy from Red Bluff, Calif., helped an elderly couple whose horse trailer had a flat tire on the side of the road, he decided to create a Facebook group dedicated to helping people with animals. Two weeks later, the deadly and destructive Carr Fire hit nearby Shasta and Trinity counties, forcing people from their homes. Not all of them were able to take their animals with them.
A year and a half later, Cowboy 911 has become a lifesaver for thousands of animals, using the power of social networking to help connect volunteers with those who need help during emergencies. The group has grown to more than 30,000 members on Facebook, become a nonprofit and received plenty of recognition. It has chapters in three counties — Tehama, Shasta and Placer — and will have 10 more chapters early this year, once other volunteers complete their training, which includes tips on evacuating animals.
“People have sent us cash from Vietnam,” Jones said during an interview at Facebook’s offices in San Francisco. (The group used the money for gas cards for volunteers.) He and co-founder Jill Pierre, a restaurant owner with lots of experience around animals herself, were in the Bay Area recently to share what they’ve learned about using social media during emergencies at a disaster-response forum hosted by Facebook, Google, Airbnb and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Cowboy 911, where people usually post that they need help evacuating animals or have trailers and room for such animals, has become so well known that some people — who may have been evacuated because of wildfires — simply hand volunteers the keys to their homes, said Pierre.
“They ask us to look for their pets,” Jones said. “They tell us to look under the bed because their cats liked to hide under the bed.”
But “there was no bed” because the houses had burned down, Pierre added — although as volunteers, they are not allowed to tell residents the fate of their homes.
They also pick up animal remains. Pierre cried as she explained that when they don’t find remains, they “put out food and water and create a shelter” in case the animals come back.
The help the group has provided also brings others to tears.
“They’re amazing,” said Beverly Eissler-Krammer of Red Bluff, choking up as she remembered how Cowboy 911 volunteers brought her cousin’s horse to her after the Camp Fire. Her cousin Sarah Kester, who lived in Paradise, had to flee the home she shared with her mother and then-8-year-old daughter. They had no way to transport their 10-year-old horse, Kiche.
“As soon as I heard that they opened the gate (to let the horse out so she wouldn’t be stuck as the fire approached), I reached out to Cowboy 911,” Eissler-Krammer said. A couple of weeks later, after she and her cousin had looked everywhere online and offline for Kiche, they found her. But they didn’t have a trailer, so she asked Cowboy 911 for help. Volunteers brought Kiche to her.
“She was covered in ash,” Eissler-Krammer said. “She was very thin, looked stressed and scared.” Kiche remains with Eissler-Krammer to this day, and is doing much better, thanks to Cowboy 911 volunteers Jamie Means and Vernon Lawrence.
“They didn’t want any repayment or anything,” she said. “They were awesome. They’re a great network of wonderful people.”
But the group isn’t universally loved. It has had to deal with rules and restrictions that vary by county. Jones said they have to learn to work within the system and train other volunteers to respect each jurisdiction. They’ve seen chaos, power struggles and in some cases have run into resistance because some officials think volunteers get in the way.