DOTHAN, Ala. -- After losing her cat for nearly a month and surviving a car crash near Atlanta, Jeneve Brooks has found a new outlook on life.
Brooks lost control of the sport-utility vehicle she was driving on Interstate 85 on Dec. 26 as she traveled back to Dothan after visiting family near Atlanta over the Christmas holidays. Brooks survived, but lost her beloved cat in the crash, 200 miles from Dothan.
After 22 days and lots of hard work from many different people, Brooks was reunited with her 13-year-old cat Tom last week.
The accident happened after Brooks became distracted by Tom, who she'd just let out of his carrier while traveling on the interstate. She recalled traveling southbound on the highway with Tom next to her inside the cat carrier, until she took him out to relieve some of his apparent stress.
"He was crying in a way that was very disturbing," she said. "He was on his carrier at one point and it was like he was surfing. I was like `get down. "'
Brooks crashed but didn't strike any other vehicles. She went to a hospital and received treatment for injuries to her head and hand. She later discovered her cat was missing from her car.
Brooks, who works as an assistant professor of sociology at Troy University Dothan with a specialization in race relations, said she saw a collaboration of different races of people stop on the side of the highway to offer her help.
"Losing my cat restored my faith in humanity," Brooks said. "I looked like the `Walking Dead' because my head was bleeding a lot. People were praying over me, and telling me they loved me. I looked up at one point there was like a sea of black and white faces looking over me."
Brooks said she hopes what she called the embarrassing decision to let her cat out of the carrier will help others learn about the dangers of distracted driving.
"I'm 50 years old and this is the first serious accident I've ever been in," she said. "I wasn't drunk, and I wasn't texting, but I still made a choice that potentially could've cost other people their lives. I could've caused a multiple car pile-up."
Two women, who Brooks referred to as her cat angels, found her cat after they set up traps in some woods off Interstate 85 near Newnan, Georgia, in Coweta County.
Brooks said she wouldn't have been reunited with Tom without the help of Lovy Myers and Elizabeth Perdue. She found Myers and Perdue by searching through a Lost and Found Pets Facebook page.
Brooks went back to the area of the accident two to three times after the crash, searching for Tom with friends and family.
"I posted a picture of Tom and told my story," Brooks recalled.
Brooks said Myers and Perdue both encouraged her from the beginning of the search with hope of finding Tom.
Through the search for her cat Brooks learned a lot about the strategy used to search for and locate lost animals, particularly cats.
"Lovy had me touching small bushes near the crash and everything," Brooks recalled. "I just realized all the science that goes into all of this. I just didn't know anything about cat behavior."
Brooks said Myers checked out the homes and farms in the area of where accident happened and inquiring on whether they had cats on the property. Brooks learned Myers could then rule out those areas because Tom wouldn't likely venture into the territory of other cats.
"She said `in my experience your cat is hiding,"' Brooks said. "He is hiding in the woods."
The accident happened on I-85 right next to some property where a woman who owns and runs an Arabian horse farm. Brooks returned a couple of times after the accident to some woods on the farm's property where she met Myers and Perdue and they set up at least three cat traps.
"She's like `usually cats will not venture far away from where they're lost, "' Brooks said of Myers. "She's like a pet detective."
Brooks recalled how Myers suggested she bring up Tom's litter box, his cat carrier and even some of her laundry to the woods near the accident to help in the search. She said Myers also set up a camera in the woods, or what she referred to as some "wildlife cams," in an effort to catch Tom on video in the woods.
Brooks said once a certain area of the woods had been narrowed down Myers set up what she referred to as a "kitty buffet" in the woods, which included several different fish foods like tuna placed on top of a piece of cardboard. The "kitty buffet" was set up last weekend and Tom was captured on camera.
"She actually had him on camera feeding right there in between an opossum and all that," Brooks said.
After capturing who she believed was Tom on camera, Myers set the traps up again the very next day, last Sunday. Brooks recalled immediately recognizing Tom upon receiving a text message picture of the captured cat Sunday night. Tom was found about 100 feet off the highway behind a barbed wire fence.
Last Monday, Brooks brought Tom back home to Dothan.
Brooks said Myers and Perdue probably spent between 30 and 40 hours helping search for Tom.
"They're rescuers," she said. "Just totally selfless. They didn't know me from Adam."
Brooks said Tom probably returned home healthier because he'd lost some weight. She also took him to his veterinarian for a check-up where he received a clean bill of health.
The whole process of losing and finding Tom has given Brooks the desire to help out with animal rescue in the Wiregrass.
"To have that support, and know people care really means so much. I really just feel a strong need right now to pay back," Brooks said. "It really takes a village."