‘Just unfathomable’: Cat rescue community mourns loss of fatal fire victim

  • Sarah Berger. (Courtesy Town Meeting TV) Courtesy Town Meeting TV

Published: 3/26/2023 9:15:08 PM
Modified: 3/27/2023 9:35:51 AM

She met Sarah Berger in, perhaps, the most fitting way possible: While rescuing a cat.

The small, gray shorthair was stuck up in a tree at Berger’s house in Winooski, Vt. Berger called a local animal rescue and advocacy organization, where Kathee Ludwig had just started volunteering. Ludwig borrowed a ladder from a neighbor to reach the cat, and “we were friends from that moment on,” she recalled in an interview last week.

In countless other cases, though, it was Berger rescuing the cats herself. She didn’t do it for a living — there was no money in it, anyway — but saving cats was, in many ways, her life’s work, Ludwig and other friends said. Berger later moved north to Richford, Vt., and would go on to care for as many as hundreds of farm cats throughout Franklin County.

Berger, 68, died earlier this month in a fire that razed her home and likely killed the 10 cats that lived with her. Her death has left others who look after farm cats in the region wondering what they’ll do without her.

“Just the thought of her being gone is really tragic for Franklin County, because I would get calls all the time for her,” Ludwig said. “She was just so active in the community.”

Berger would drive miles and miles a day to make sure several feral cat colonies in the region had food and warm shelter, friends said. She also worked closely with rescue organizations to bring feral cats to local veterinarians, where they could be spayed and neutered, and then released back outside — a process known as “trap-neuter-return.”

When Berger came across friendly strays, she often helped them find homes.

“Especially in the Richford area, she was the eyes and ears to help keep the population under control,” said Charlotte Benedict, who lives in nearby Swanton, Vt. “We’re all just scrambling at this point to make sure that everything she was feeding stays fed.”

Berger’s friends remember her as a straight shooter with a big heart. She did not carry a cellphone, according to Benedict, but kept scrupulous paper records documenting her work with the cats — most, if not all of which, were lost in the house fire on March 8.

And according to friends and coworkers, Berger’s organizational skills shined in her day job as bookkeeper for the CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, the Burlington-based television station. Berger started there in 1995. Meghan O’Rourke, CCTV’s projects director, attributes much of the organization’s financial stability to Berger’s diligence.

“She was a bookkeeper who understood what we are trying to do as a community media organization,” O’Rourke said. “And that was just super special.”

O’Rourke also saw Berger’s magic with cats firsthand, she wrote in a message to friends and family members after her death. O’Rourke recalled bringing Berger “a feral old barn cat” in the late 1990s to be spayed and then released, after which Berger took the cat in herself.

“A few weeks later,” O’Rourke wrote, “(Berger) brought me back a beautiful, washed, and groomed house cat who had no interest in anything other than pats and laps.”

Berger graduated from Richford High School in 1972 and then attended cosmetology school in Burlington, according to an obituary published in the Saint Albans Messenger. She worked as a hairdresser for 15 years before getting her job at the TV station.

Berger also loved outdoor activities, including hiking, swimming and riding horses, according to the obituary. She is survived by her sister and her son, who could not be reached for comment for this story.

Benedict and others plan to host a free spay and neuter clinic for stray and feral cats in the Richford area both to honor Berger’s work and help address some of the need she is no longer filling. They plan to publish more details about the clinic soon.

“It’s a tremendous loss to a lot of people,” said Annie Malloy, co-founder of the organization Cat Crusaders of Franklin County. “She left a huge gap — not to mention being missed, personally, by us humans.”

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