The dedication of a group of strangers has allowed one New York woman to reunite with her beloved cat after a six-month search.

Jean Stevens was heading home with her family after a visit in Union last July, when the car they were towing behind a camper caught fire as they traveled along Route 17.

In the midst of taking care of the fire, Myla, the 6-year-old family cat, escaped from the camper and scurried into the nearby woods west of North Union Road. After days of searching, Stevens returned to New York — empty-handed.

"It was a feeling of total despair," Stevens said in a Jan. 11 telephone interview. "I was her protector, but I didn't protect her enough from getting out."

After seeing a post on the Maine Lost Dogs and Cats Facebook page, Mary Butler of Warren brought a small group of locals together to search for Myla.

"I formed a Facebook Messenger group and lent a trap, cameras and printed some fliers," Butler said, adding that everyone took turns following up on leads.

Several trips back to the area proved disappointing, although Stevens was able to see Myla at the Whittier Farm on Overlock Hill Road before a bolt of lightning scared her away, and again Stevens returned home brokenhearted.

"The look of despair in her face, and the fact she did not want to leave was hard to see," Butler said.

Martha Johnston-Nash recalls that sightings were posted, many of them leading to the same male cat around the Union Common area. That cat was later taken to Pope Memorial Humane Society in Thomaston.

Cameras were set up on roads including Clarry Hill, Overlock Hill, North Union, Pound Hill and Bump Hill — anywhere around town where someone was sure it was Myla they had spotted.

Then, as the winter cold began, Ariel Patten joined the group. She had been feeding a cat further west on Route 17 for several months, thinking it belonged to a neighbor.

"Feeding, watching, monitoring …she was Myla's angel," Diane Gallant-Marion said.

On Jan. 2, Nash said, the group's messenger feed was abuzz. A camera and food had been set up earlier in the day at the spot where Patten had been feeding the cat, and in the afternoon "Team Myla" met for the first time all together to study the intricate markings in the photographs captured on the camera and compare them to those that had been posted on the Maine Lost website.

"We above all did not want to give false hopes to Jean," Katie Hemenway said. "I believe it was the third night of setting up the camera Myla decided she was going to pose … what a great head shot she provided to us."

Hemenway said that after every stripe, every whisker, every significant marking started matching, she was 100 percent positive it was Myla and it was time to set a trap.

Team Myla then developed a strategy to catch the cat safely. A shelter box with food was set in place in view of the cameras, and the next few days they took turns watching Myla's activity, getting a sense of her feeding schedule, and seeing just how close she would get to entering the box.

As the clock approached 12:30 p.m. Jan. 7, Team Myla was getting very impatient, Hemenway recalled. "Then, there it was — confirmation — we trapped the cat we know was Myla, but not yet confirmed."

Butler said getting the call from Patten that the cat had been caught was unreal.

"So many emotions …the pictures say it all," Butler said.

"It is one thing catching a cat believed to be the one you're looking for, but when the animal has a chip, it eliminates any of the lingering questions," Nash said.

Butler contacted Shannon Nachajko from Catahoula Rescue of New England to come scan the chip and get its identification number. After a few attempts, a successful read was made and a number was messaged to Stevens for verification.

While Team Myla waited for what seemed an eternity, Stevens was out of communication gathering wood. But, within the hour, they had their answer — the number was verified and Stevens was on her way from New York to be reunited with her dear Myla.

"I thought I'd never see her again," Stevens said. "But they kept me boosted and told me not to worry — they were going to continue searching."

"When she saw Jean, she settled in and just seemed to say, 'I knew you would come,'" Nash said.

Hemenway compared the moment to the movie "Homeward Bound," but noted, "Some owners don't get so lucky."

"Myla had been quiet until she heard Jean's voice," Gallant-Marion said of the reunion. "Then Myla was talking to Jean. Jean opened the door, and Myla crawled onto Jean's lap. She purred …Myla was home. This is a moment I will never, ever forget," she said.

For sure, it was a moment Team Myla will never forget.

"Animals become people's everything. I could not even imagine what Jean went through emotionally for those six months," Nash said, adding that Jan. 9 would have been exactly six months that Myla was fending for herself, avoiding wildlife and searching for her mom.

"We all feel she was waiting and knew her mom would be there. The power of love!" Nash said.

Also contributing to the successful reunion were team member Beth Earl and Shekera Davis of the Maine Lost Dogs and Cats.

Myla wasn't the only cat the group rescued during the adventure. Aside from the one taken to Pope Memorial Humane Society, another stray was returned to its farm after confirmation that it was not Myla.

"It was a true community effort," Kathleen Thornton said. "I met a lot of great people who I probably would not have known otherwise. And I couldn't have asked for a better ending to the story," she added.

Gallant-Marion echoed Thornton's feelings. "The people of Union are amazing. In this day and age, when everyone is so wary of strangers, permission was granted to wander their property at all hours, put up cameras, food, traps. That is something that truly impressed me. They are the unknown heroes of this story," she said.

Stevens said she couldn't even explain the feeling she had when she saw Myla was safe. She doesn't have any other cats, but does have a dog named Soulei.

"He had my undivided attention," Stevens said. At the reunion, Soulei and Myla went nose-to-nose, then went their separate ways, she said.

Stevens said she can't stress enough the importance of having pets chipped. If not for the chip, this story might have dragged on forever, and quite possibly might have had a much different ending.

"I can't thank Team Myla enough," Stevens said. "We will be friends forever."

In fact, the group is already planning a reunion for next August, when Stevens and Myla return to Bear Hill to visit friends.

Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at