Fire at Atwater cat sanctuary leaves dozens of cats dead

ATWATER, Calif.

The non-profit animal sanctuary is located just outside Atwater on Bailey Road near Applegate.

The fire started in what is now a charred office at the Last Hope Cat Kingdom. The smoke then spread through much of the building, killing nearly half of the estimated 150 cats living there, and leaving the volunteers who cared for them devastated.

"We're out here every day, and we love these cats, and it's so sad that something like this happens, and you don't think it would happen to you," said volunteer Dottie Henry.

This isn't the first time the shelter's founder has dealt with a heartbreaking loss. Her daughter, Mona Schmitz, was murdered in June of 2008 in front of her two young children inside this home on the property. The suspect, her live-in boyfriend, was later found dead inside his S.U.V. in a Merced County orchard from an apparent suicide.

The animal sanctuary was Mona's dream. "My daughter was very special. She loved animals, so she did everything, bought this property only for her animals," said Renate Schmitz, the founder of Last Hope Cat Kingdom.

Schmitz is now carrying on her daughter's legacy by taking in abandoned animals and trying to find them homes. But this fire is a major setback.

Firefighters say the apparent electrical fire caused about $25,000 in damage -- along with the loss of dozens of animals.

The first four pet rooms are all on the same ventilation system as the office, so only the cats in the back 2 rooms, which are on a different ventilation system, survived. The rooms have pet doors that lead outside, but it appears the cats were too cold or confused to escape.

"Very sad, they was our babies, ya know."

As Renate and her friends work to rebuild, they're asking for the public's help. They need blankets, pet food, and help building new enclosures -- as well as people willing to adopt or foster the animals that survived this tragic fire.

"It's just so sad for Renate, she's been through so much."

Donations to the Last Hope Cat Kingdom can be dropped off at the sanctuary at 6660 Bailey Rd., Atwater, CA.

Monetary donations can be made directly through PayPal at: lasthopesanctuary.org

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