It was a mystery that brought the Parkwood community closer together than anything Terri-Ann Gonzalez had ever seen. The question kept her awake, wandering the Parkwood streets alone at 2:30 a.m. and with neighbors she had never even met before during daylight hours.
Where was Bella the cat?
Gonzalez first noticed something was wrong May 18. The Little Flower graduate runs a furniture refurbishing shop from her home, and when her cats Bella and Scarlett hear the squeak of the food cabinet door open at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day, they come running knowing it’s time to eat.
But Bella’s distinct orange fur (she’s a Ragdoll cat, meaning she’s especially fuzzy) was nowhere to be seen. Gonzalez and her husband Samuel searched the house and surrounding property with increasing trepidation – the cat hadn’t been outside since they adopted her four years ago, and fields behind the home were filled with cats, possums, deer and even coyotes, Gonzalez said.
“From that moment on I didn’t stop looking,” Gonzalez said. “I searched 24 hours a day. I would come in to take a nap and go back out.”
Gonzalez was walking an average of 10 miles a day, calling Bella’s name as she walked in circles through the streets. On the sixth night of Bella being gone, she fell to her knees in the nearby baseball field at 2:30 in the morning, sobbing and praying she would find her cat. Samuel, who comes home from work around that time, found her there.
“She’s always been fighting,” he said. “She had stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma and she beat it. [Gonzalez is a three-time cancer survivor.] She’s the toughest person I know, seeing her out there at 2 a.m. crying over a cat, and I say that with love.”
But they weren’t alone in their search. Gonzalez started posting Facebook posts documenting their search – pouring her heart out, in her own words. She posted on her own profile and Parkwood’s community page.
“As the day is going by I can’t imagine her out there alone,” one reads, the text accompanied by several pictures of the cat and rose emojis. “As I feel like I have no more tears left. They roll down my face.”
It wasn’t long before a neighbor showed up at their front door with a trap. The neighbor gave her instructions on how to use it to safely lure the cat by filling it with litter, even though it was the first time Gonzalez had met them.
Gonzalez also spread the word offline by walking to neighbors’ doors, asking them for help and listening to their advice. While on the streets she met Michele Borbidge, a Normandy resident. Borbidge immediately joined the search, looking under sheds, printing fliers and more to help bring the beloved pet home.
“People started coming up to me and asking if I was Bella’s mom, then saying we’ll walk with you,” Gonzalez said. People started coordinating searches with her at specific times through the day. “So many people I didn’t even know started looking with me.”
At least 50 people joined the search over the next few days, she estimated, with hundreds more requesting frequent updates on Facebook. She was sent multiple sighting tips online, but whenever she ran to the location, Bella was nowhere to be found.
And then the seventh day happened.
The Martinez family, four doors down, planned to embark on a trip to Wildwood, New Jersey that weekend. On May 25 they took their truck they hadn’t driven all week to the Wawa at Byberry and Academy Road to fill up on gas and quickly check their oil.
Wedged in the side panel under the engine hood was the bright orange fur of a trapped feline.
“Hello everybody, I think we found Bella,” Gonzalez addressed the audience tuning in to her Facebook livestreaming of Bella’s rescue, which has since gathered over 1,400 views. The rescue was documented through the 11-minute 36-second video, which showed the neighbors dissembling their vehicle to help free the cat, Bella scratching at Gonzalez out of fear when she tried to ease her out, and finally freeing the cat and placing her in a pillowcase that Gonzalez hugged to her chest while crying tears of relief.
Bella’s just fine now – she’s back home after a trip to the vet to fix her leg that was broken during her rescue. Neighbors flocked to GoFundMe to aid the cat’s surgery bill, which was covered in a matter of days.
But the cat’s local fame hasn’t died down – Ladybug Boutique in Blue Bell contacted Gonzalez to print Bella-themed shirts after they followed the story online. Gonzalez has never been the outgoing type, she wrote in a Facebook post summarizing the events, but this event changed the way she sees things.
“For all the help we got from people in the community, I didn’t even meet half of them and I lived here for 15 years,” she said. “It’s such a good story of how Parkwood was so amazing and came together just to find Bella.”
On one of the days after Bella was home recovering in her cast, kids knocked on the door asking if they could see Bella and take pictures. Neighbors came over to bring treats, and someone even brought a Petco gift certificate.
And for Gonzalez, it was purrfect.