The Doc Project

'Dead' Zeppelin: this cat's family thought he'd climbed the stairway to Heaven … but he hadn't

Eight months after cremating a cat she thought was her beloved pet, Desirée Hobbins got a shocking call saying that her cat was actually still alive thanks to the help of a neighbourhood stranger.

Zeppelin’s family even cremated him - or so they thought

For eight months, Zeppelin the cat’s family thought he was dead, but he was actually living just five blocks away. (Submitted by Desirée Hobbins)

Desirée Hobbins remembers kneeling in a gravel parking lot in September 2020, sobbing while holding her white-and-orange tabby cat.

"I was just holding his body and realizing that that's my baby," she said, recalling how the cat, Zeppelin, was wrapped carefully in a velvet shirt.

Zeppelin, named after the rock and roll band, disappeared a week earlier while Hobbins was away on a trip. After several sleepless nights searching her neighbourhood streets, Hobbins read a Facebook post about a white-and-orange tabby found dead on a road in town. 

The animal's body was taken to the Regina Humane Society, where Hobbins identified him as her pet.

Desirée Hobbins adopted Zeppelin as a kitten from the Regina Humane Society in 2014. (Submitted by Desirée Hobbins)

The cat had the same colouring as Zeppelin, even the same identification tattoo that said RHS, which stands for Regina Humane Society.

"It really looked exactly like Zeppelin. And for some reason in my heart, I felt like it really was him. I just had this all-knowing feeling," she said.

Hobbins made arrangements for a cremation and grieved her beloved pet. But it turns out that cat was not Zeppelin.

In May 2021, after eight months of mourning, Hobbins got a shocking message from a local cat rescue saying they found her pet, and that he was ready to come home.

"I was like 'I think you have the wrong girl. I lost Zeppelin back in September. We cremated him and I've mourned him,'" said Hobbins. "It was just disbelief, like this can't be happening."

The styrofoam cat haven

Zeppelin and Hobbins' unlikely reunion may not have been possible without the help of Phyllis Baker.

In autumn 2020, Baker noticed tiny cat prints in the snow around her ransacked garbage bins. "I knew something was hungry in my yard … so right away I contacted Regina Cat Rescue and they gave me a styrofoam sleeping house," she said.

The house was about a meter square with a porthole and curtain for cats to enter. Baker added an extension so the cats could eat in a separate room, then jump into a comfy bed to hunker down on cold nights.

The animal lover wanted to transform the simple styrofoam house into a luxurious hotel-like experience. She stocked it with crunchy cat food, heaps of fresh cooked chicken and turkey, and added a heated water bowl.

Zeppelin spent several months living in a styrofoam cat house Phyllis Baker set up in her backyard. Baker installed a small camera to see what was happening inside. (Facebook)

Curious about what her visitors were up to, she also installed a small camera. "We wanted to know exactly what was going on in the cat house," said Baker.

For weeks, Baker watched as about half a dozen feral cats frequented the cat house to eat. None of them spent the night, until an orange-and-white tabby showed up in January 2021.

"He just looked so miserable, he was so unhappy and he was very scared," said Baker.

    The cat was skinny, walking with a limp, and had a lump on his head. "He was missing a tooth, and I thought he'd gotten into some kind of trouble," Baker said.

    As the cat began to trust her more, she named him Buddy.

    Baker and her partner posted several photos and videos of Zeppelin on facebook groups for lost pets. (Facebook)

    For several months Baker cared for Buddy, leaving him extra chicken to help him gain strength, visiting when he felt confident enough to be seen, and even cleaning his fur when he got covered in tar from local roadwork.

    "I really loved Buddy," said Baker.

    On several occasions Baker and a local cat rescue tried to scan Buddy for a microchip, but had no luck. He had a generic Regina Humane Society tattoo in his ear, but without the chip, they couldn't identify his owner.

    We hung posters around the neighbourhood, we put it on Facebook. Just no one came forward- Phyllis Baker


    "I was lost," said Baker. "We hung posters around the neighbourhood, we put it on Facebook. Just no one came forward."

    By May, Regina Cat Rescue had found Buddy a foster home, forcing Baker to say goodbye to her tabby friend.

    "It broke my heart because here I am passing off this cat that I grew to love," said Baker.

    But before sending Buddy to his new foster home, the cat rescue tried one more scan for a microchip. This time it worked, and they discovered Buddy was actually Zeppelin.

    A second chance

    For eight months, Zeppelin the cat was moonlighting as Buddy just five blocks away from home. 

    "I feel so happy knowing Desirée has a second chance with her Zeppelin, and I am so happy that [he] has his mommy back," said Baker.

    Hobbins says the reunion is a testament to the common humanity people share when it comes to caring for animals.

    Hobbins beams with joy the day she’s reunited with Zeppelin in May 2021. (Submitted by Desirée Hobbins)

    "I think during these times, the world is very tumultuous … and people just have so much good in them for an animal they don't know," she said.

    As for the cat Hobbins cremated believing it was Zeppelin — she hasn't been able to find his family, but she wants them to know he was loved at the end.

    "I don't know really what the bigger picture is in this," said Hobbins. "But I feel good that that cat did get a better send off than maybe it might have had."

    About the Producer 

    Tanara McLean is an award-winning producer and journalist based at CBC Edmonton. She grew up in Red Deer and has spent her entire career in Alberta, working in print, radio and television. Tanara has produced several documentaries for The Doc Project, including How the mbira — an instrument with a complicated history in Zimbabwe — found a following in Western Canada.

    This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe.