HUDSON — A stranger led Melissa Palmer to a wall of 55-gallon drums behind Freedom RV Center.
"I'm almost certain she went in here," the woman told Palmer, pointing to a dark crevice between the barrels.
The opening was so tiny and dank, Palmer couldn't believe Chloe really might be here. More than seven weeks had passed since Chloe disappeared from Palmer's home, some 40 miles away in Largo, and the 9-year-old Siamese house cat was mostly blind. Palmer had come to painful terms with the thought that Chloe was gone for good.
Then came the amazing chain of events that led Palmer to this improbable spot off Ideal Lane, behind the RV repair warehouse abutting woods filled with feral cats. Palmer crouched and sweet-talked the shadows.
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Two of Palmer's cats vanished the night of Feb. 23 and it still doesn't make sense to her. Theo was a scrappy tomcat who liked to roam outside, but cautious Chloe had always stayed close to home. She reluctantly began going outside in 2004, when Palmer was diagnosed with the highest stage of Hodgkin's lymphoma. Doctors put Palmer on an extreme chemotherapy regimen that left her vulnerable to infections. No more litter boxes inside the home.
Palmer made sure to put hard-to-remove collars on both cats, who were also microchipped. Chloe got used to doing her business outside, even after the chemo was over and Palmer, now 41, was in remission. Still, Chloe didn't go on the prowl like Theo, and the two cats weren't exactly chummy. It seemed unlikely they'd scamper off together.
Palmer and her husband, Troy, and their son, Colton, searched exhaustively for the cats. They posted signs and Craigslist ads, talked to neighbors and called every Pinellas shelter they could think of. Nothing.
"Animal control said it was most likely that a coyote got them," Palmer said.
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A resident of Heritage Pines, a 55-plus community just south of the Pasco-Hernando county line, called the maintenance office April 13 to report the remains of a mauled cat.
Facilities director Gary Wind and maintenance worker Sean Young went to the home to remove and bury the body. Wind decided to call Sherry Churchill, president of the Kitty Coalition of Heritage Pines Inc., a nonprofit trap, neuter and return program. He told her the cat had a tag. She asked for the collar. She would notify the family.
The tag said "Theo," then gave a phone number and a distant hometown: Largo.
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Palmer collapsed on the floor, sobbing, after she got off the phone. She was baffled that Theo ended up in Hudson. She was crushed to know he had suffered. She feared the same fate for Chloe.
Theo had been a hunter, an agile Hemingway cat whose extra toes gave him exceptional grasping skills. Chloe had striking features — a gray face and a unique striped tail — but she could barely see. "Out of the two of them, we really expected if one had survived it would be him," Palmer said.
Learning that Theo landed in Pasco, though, Palmer felt compelled to expand her search for Chloe. She put another lost cat ad on Craigslist on April 14, this time categorized under Pasco.
"I couldn't let go of that little feeling of hope," she said.
That evening she received an email from Brenda Stacey, a New Port Richey woman who had seen a hungry stray a week earlier matching Chloe's description. The emaciated white cat was trying to eat a piece of wood. Stacey brought cat food and water back to that spot.
Last Sunday, the Palmers drove up to Hudson to search the woods Stacey had described. They saw Ken Harvey working at the nearby Freedom RV Center, so they went over and told him about Chloe. The next day brought a call from Harvey's son saying they'd seen a white Siamese. Then on Tuesday, Harvey called and said the cat had been spotted under some of the repair shop's machinery.
She was thin and filthy. But he could see she had a collar and a striped tail.
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Palmer and her son began the long drive up to Hudson, but first they called Churchill, the Kitty Coalition lady who had adopted their cause. Churchill made it to the RV shop much sooner and set out a humane trap. The cat started to come out, then disappeared into the wall of 55-gallon drums.
When Palmer arrived, Churchill showed her the hiding spot. Palmer softly called Chloe's name and heard a faint meow.
She kept calling, and the cat inched forward. Palmer slipped her finger under the cat's collar and gently lifted her to the light.
Palmer looked at the cat's face and knew right away: "It's her!"
Both women began crying.
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Chloe was a skeletal 4 pounds, down from the 12 pounds she weighed before the ordeal. She was dehydrated and had picked up a few ticks. But the vet gave her a full exam and found no other complications. With a hearty diet and some rest, Chloe should make a full recovery.
Palmer doesn't believe her cats — especially half-blind Chloe — ended up so far from home on their own. She suspects someone is maliciously rounding up cats in her area and dumping them in faraway woods.
Still, it was a chain of kind strangers who brought Chloe back to her. Palmer made a donation to the Kitty Coalition and gave Chili's gift cards to the other Good Samaritans she'd met. They said bringing the cat back to her owner was reward enough.
"If a miracle is a wonderful event that defies logic, then this amazing series of coincidences was definitely a miracle," Churchill said. "A little white nearly blind cat . . . is important enough in this vast universe to save."
Chloe has been sleeping a lot since coming home, but on Friday she made a point to rise at 5:30 a.m. and follow Troy Palmer into the kitchen. For years, he has started every morning handing out Milk-Bones to the couple's two dogs and Temptations snacks to their cats.
Chloe wanted her treat.
Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at [email protected]