WHEN AN early-December fire consumed their kitchen and filled their North Philadelphia house with smoke, Sharon McCurdy and her adult son, Wilson Washington, fled onto 27th Street near Somerset.
Their beloved gray-and-white cat, Tigger, was missing.
Once the fire scene was secure, former firefighter Jennifer Leary and her Red Paw Emergency Relief Team responded to Tigger's absence as intensely as the Red Cross responds to families displaced by disaster.
Leary found Tigger at the scene of the fire, boarded him in her house, took him to a veterinarian and placed him in Red Paw's network of temporary foster homes until he could return to his.
After staying with relatives, McCurdy and Washington were able to move back home just before Christmas.
Late last week, they sat in their living room with Leary, waiting for a Red Paw staffer to bring Tigger home.
"I have 24 grandkids, and Tigger's good with all of them," McCurdy told Leary. "Our family is so big that when one of my grandkids has a birthday party, I don't have to invite nobody else!"
She and Washington laughed as Red Paw volunteer Dorothy Mora, of East Oak Lane, pulled up in front of the house.
Soon, Tigger was in Washington's arms, and there were hugs all around.
"Tigger was very talkative on the way over here," Mora said. "He's a sweetie pie."
Since Leary founded Red Paw 3 1/2 years ago, her volunteer-based team's pet rescues at Philadelphia disaster scenes have jumped from 133 in 2012 to 235 in 2014, and its family/pet reunions have climbed from 86 in 2012 to 221 last year, when Red Paw assisted 411 cats and 287 dogs.
Those are big numbers for a small operation run by Leary and her business partner, Lori Albright, out of their Point Breeze house, which has served as temporary shelter for hundreds of displaced cats, dogs, birds, reptiles, turtles, fish - and one tarantula.
Red Paw was born in Leary's mind in January 2011 when she helped fight the five-alarm fire that ravaged the Windermere Court Apartments in West Philadelphia, displaced more than 100 people from 90 units and left dozens of pet cats trapped in the ruins.
"Cats were trapped in the building during all those bitter, freezing-cold nights in January," Leary said. "There was no emergency-response organization to help them or to give a voice to their owners, who were shut out of the sealed-off building because of liability issues."
Witnessing pet owners pleading for help "was the last straw for me," Leary said. "That planted the seed for the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team."
Leary and her Red Paw responders bring rescued animals to PennVet at the University of Pennsylvania, which Leary loves because she's seen the docs test two Chinese water dragons for smoke inhalation as knowledgeably as they test dogs and cats.
The bigger Chinese water dragon kept an eye, sometimes two, on Leary as she spoke, while it relaxed under its terrarium sun lamp in her living room.
"At first, we provided animals with temporary shelter here for 30 days," Leary said, smiling wearily. "The water dragons have been here a year."
They belong to a boy named Kevin in Northeast Philadelphia, whose family was displaced by fire and is still waiting for the rebuild to be finished.
"When Kevin visits and holds his water dragons, you can see that they know him," Leary said.
She will care for the dragons until Kevin's home is rebuilt, which should be soon, Leary said.
And then she'll hold the second Red Paw reunion of 2015.