On a particularly chilly evening at the end of August, Jody Hudey and her son Dolphis Seguin decided that the family cat, Gustophe, would spend the night snuggled with them in their tents. The family, who is originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba had made the trek to the Spray Lakes West Campground in Alberta for Dolphis' birthday. On that fateful evening, Hudey took Gustophe out of his kennel and took him inside the tent, making sure he had his harness on.
"My son and I both woke up and I lifted my arm and realized that the harness was hanging from my arm with no cat in it. I looked at my son and then we both got up super fast in our bare feet; we were running out to the campsite thinking he'd just be sitting outside because we had a litter box set up for him at the campsite. We couldn't find him anywhere," she said.
It turned out that the six-year-old jet-black cat, whom Hudey had adopted four years ago had wriggled out of his harness during the night on August 31 and had lithely squeezed through a small hole in the tent. What was meant to be an end-of-summer family get-away turned into a prolonged search party, with Hudey staying an extra three days to look for the cat. Hudey and her son would ask hikers and campers around the campground if anyone had seen Gustophe and they even created posters to distribute and hang up.
"I just moved everything around back home because we were really hoping we would find him before we left, but we had to get back for work and school and we had to leave without him, which was absolutely devastating. Both of us cried all the way to Calgary," Hudey said. "It's strange because I just always had this inkling that we were going to find him again, there wasn't really a time that I gave up hope and everyone was saying, oh, you know, he probably got eaten by animals or whatever. I just had this hope that he was still alive."
With that tenacious hope, the family returned home. While the mood in the house was sombre, with the family dog being perplexed as to why his companion had not returned home with everyone else, Hudey would immediately start scouring and posting social media, as well as joining dozens upon dozens of Facebook groups dedicated to lost pets.
"It was horrible; it was really hard to even function. I spent hours a day searching for lost pets every single day. It was so stressful. My son was so sad and our house was so quiet and lonely without him," she said.
Her determination and perhaps a stroke of luck paid off when she connected with two women from Canmore, Alberta. Canmore residents Lisa Young and Diane Borland Venner both reached out to Hudey and promised to do everything they could to find the cat.
"Lisa offered to go up to the campground and put some trail cams up there because both of them were very convinced that he was probably he was still alive and then I sent some of my clothes to Diane, that my son and I had been wearing so that they smelled like us. She and her husband went up to the campsite and they put them there."
Lisa would go and periodically check the trial cameras and was slightly perturbed. While Gustophe was nowhere to be seen, she also noted that there were no predators in the area, which seemed odd to her, especially since the campground had closed down during the September long weekend. This detail intrigued Hudey too, considering there had been rumours of bears in the area right before she had left. The absence of any predators as well as the absence of snow, according to Hudey was perhaps a sign that Gustophe was alive.
" [It] felt like the universe was really on our side. So, my son and I decided we have to go back before the snow comes and we have to look for him one more time. We just wouldn't feel right if we didn't give it that one last shot."
Hudey made quick work of booking hotels and was ready to come back to Alberta, but then she received a frantic call from Lisa Young on October 18, nearly two and half months after Gustophe had gone missing. The family cat had turned up on the trail cameras, not once, but every night that week. Without a moment's hesitation, Hudey, her mother, and her son all piled into the car and drove over 1,400 kilometres from Manitoba to Alberta.
"Diane [Borland Venner] actually called around to Kanaskis conservation and she got us permission to go in and then she also got some live traps from Canmore bylaw, and we had permission to use those. So, we went up there."
On Thursday evening Hudey and her son went to the campsite, and she would leave her sweater in the kennel and left, coming back in the morning for another unsuccessful day of searching for the feline. By evening, the weather had turned cold and there were predictions of snowfall, but despite the weather, the family would go back to the campsite. Hudey said they followed the same routine as before, putting clothing in the live traps and then parking the car down the road. As the snow started to come down heavier and heavier, Hudey decided they may have to head back. With heavy hearts, they started to make their way back to the traps.
"We had our flashlights, and we went and looked in one trap and it was empty. The second trap in the other driveway was empty and then we shined our flashlights into the campsite, and the trap was closed," Hudey said. "We [my mom and I] both looked at each other all excited. We thought let's not get too excited yet because we don't know yet. We walked over to the cage, and I lifted up the blanket and sure enough, he was right there looking at us."
After tears of joy, hugs and relief, Hudey took Gustophe who had been in the wilderness for 54 days back to the car to be rejoined with Dolphis.
"Gustophe crawled right into my son's lap and snuggled with him right away; he knew who we were right away."
Hudey said that because Gustophe had been a stray cat before he was adopted, she suspects his 'street-cat wise' skills are what helped him navigate through all those days and nights in the wild. While the cat has shed some of his weight, Hudey said he is healthy and happy, but his camping days are over, though the kitty doesn't seem to mind too much, as he has always been quite the snuggle bug.
"I think he's had enough adventure for the rest of whatever lives he has left," Hudey concluded.