By David Abbott
Sonoma Seniors Today Editor
John and Penny Dolan had quite a menagerie on their Crystal Court property in the Mark West Springs area of Santa Rosa. Before the fires, that is.
With a dog, three cats and upwards of 70 chickens, Penny Dolan had a lot of family pets. She raises Marans chickens, practicing amateur animal husbandry and selective breeding to get uniquely colored eggs from her hens, who usually live long, healthy lives.
“I let them live out their lives in comfort, although when there are too many roosters, I occasionally sell them to friends,” Dolan said. “I don’t feel bad about it because they don’t suffer and it goes for food.”
So when the couple evacuated their home in a neighborhood that was decimated by the historic conflagration, one of the last things they did was open their three chicken coops in case the fires missed the property and the chickens survived the advancing flames.
They headed west to a friend’s house on Burnside Road and watched the fires from the safety of the Sebastopol hills. At the time, they thought they might still be able to return to the house they lived in for 16 years.
Unfortunately, their home burned along with all but two in the neighborhood, but somehow the coops survived.
“As soon as they let us go back, we saw the house was burnt to the ground, but the chicken coops were still there,” Dolan said.
To Dolan’s surprise, there were still 10 live chickens running around the property, although she had to bury 25 others she found. The rest simply disappeared.
“They were on their own for five days,” Dolan said. “They were eating pumpkins, squash and apples that had fallen from the trees.”
But since the Dolans were living so far away with their friends Clark and Monica Wilcox, who moved to Sebastopol from Menlo Park in 2007, Penny was not able to get to the property to feed the animals.
So she found Marc Ash’s chickenchatcoop yahoo group to see if she could get someone to go up and feed the chickens for her, while she made arrangements for them at her new, temporary digs.
Through a friend of a friend, Dolan also found Goatlandia farm animal sanctuary, the brainchild of former commercial pilot and restaurateur Deborah Blum, who moved from San Francisco to a 2-acre northwest Santa Rosa property in 2011 to establish a safe place for unwanted animals to live out their lives.
To Dolan’s surprise, a group of volunteers, including Ash, not only went up to feed the animals, but also rescued and brought them to Goatlandia.
“Around the time of the fires, a lot of people were looking for pets and animals lost or missing,” Blum said. “There were a lot in the first couple of days and it was easier to get past the barricades. It was so chaotic.”
Volunteers were able to talk their way past the roadblocks by explaining the mission of the nonprofit and did not run into resistance until later, when law enforcement and National Guard from around the state came to the region to tighten security on the affected areas.
Eventually, the Dolans’ menagerie made it to Goatlandia, and thanks to friends with sufficient space and a love of animals, they are all together again, waiting to move back home once the property is cleared for the rebuild.
They are down to one dog, two cats and the chickens. One of the cats ran away once they relocated to Sebastopol. Another cat, Nid Noy, was severely burned and spent time at a facility at UC Davis, but is well on her way to recovery.
As for Goatlandia, Blum said overall they rescued 100 animals. Of those, they are currently fostering 30 and have provided homes for 27. She added that she would take the lessons of the fires and begin training her volunteers so they will be prepared for any future community disasters.
Dolan said it will take at least two years for them to rebuild, but the pair plans on moving onto the property to a trailer after it is cleared.
“We’re going to rebuild,” she said. “It will be a smaller house, of course.”
But the chickens will be going back to their familiar coops that suffered minor damage, as a reminder of the randomness of the damage caused by the historic fires.