Oil & Gas Engineers Double as Feline Heroes

Typically, being an oil and gas engineer means handling complex hydrocarbon and geothermal technology, crunching environmental data, using a high level of analytical skill.

Sometimes, the job also includes handling fuzzy little kittens.

On a usual weekday last month, Brian Tillquist , a field engineer for the oil, gas, and geothermal resources division (DOGGR), and his wife Stephanie Tillquist, an associate oil and gas engineer, headed out for a break, walking from their Bakersfield office through a residential neighborhood nearby.

As the Tillquists headed down the cul-de-sac behind the office, they heard an unusual, and terribly loud, noise. It stopped them in their tracks.

“I thought it was a bird,” Stephanie recalled. “Then we thought it was maybe the pump jack on the other side of the fence, a rusty wellhead making the noise.”

But the pump jack wasn’t even on. Stephanie quickly realized the sound was from a cat.

The well was in an empty pad behind a fence, in a lot between houses. There’s an enclosure around the wellhead (a safety precaution) and at the bottom of this enclosure, was a tiny bump, a little grey anomaly the same color as concrete on the pump jack.

Rusty out of service well
The source of the noise was somewhere around this defunct wellhead.


“It was a little kitten!” Stephanie said. “It looked like it was drying up in the Bakersfield heat – I started panicking.”

The kitten must’ve recognized a field engineer from the looks of Brian, screeching to get the attention of a unique and unlikely hero: someone with experience and ability to safely access the well and remove the stuck kitten from the hot and precarious spot. DOGGR field engineers are among the few who have the authority and experience to safely maneuver their way around a pump jack, though usually not for cat rescues.

The tiny kitten had one eye sealed shut. It fit inside one of Stephanie’s hands.

Stephanie and Brian Tillquist outside the DOGGR Inland district office, walking distance to where they found the abandoned kitty.
As it turns out, the DOGGR Bakersfield office is a pretty terrific place for an abandoned kitty to be rescued. The area is known for having lots of stray cats. Bakersfield shelters are over impacted, unable to accept more strays. It’s common knowledge at the Inland district office that generations of cats have grown up in the parking lot, living in the reliable shade of the division’s fleet of vehicles.

Stephanie knew that someone in the office would know what to do with this kitten as well.

Afton Van Zandt, another local associate oil & gas engineer, was that someone. Van Zandt has raised orphaned kittens – among other domestic and wild critters – nearly her whole life.

“I grew up in a rural area where I would find anything from a hawk to baby kitten,” Van Zandt confirmed. “I learned from an early age how to rescue or bring them into the rehabilitation center in town.”

“Afton came to save the day!” said Stephanie. “She knew right away what the kitty needed, got a bottle and kitty formula to nurse it back to health.”

The kitty was male, about two weeks old, based on how it’s ears were still flopped down on its head. At around three weeks old, these ears pop up. The little grey kitten also had no teeth, another development that starts to show up around three weeks of age.


After setting up a temporary care unit (an empty copier paper box) at her office, Van Zandt and colleague Emily Loera used their afternoon break to double-check the rescue scene.

Knowing where to look this time, another white kitten was found nudged under a bush.

“Normally cats have their kittens very well hidden, this one wasn’t,” Van Zandt explained. “It didn’t meow very much, was dehydrated, covered in fleas; I think it was on its way out.”


The second rescue is a white female with Siamese characteristics. Once the two kittens were reunited, “they knew each other,” Van Zandt said, “They would cuddle each other. You could tell they were brother and sister.”

Brian Tillquist, a field engineer, and the temporary office mascots.
The kittens, “White” and “Grey,” were cared for by a rotation of couples at the office while they grew old enough to be adopted.

“White” is more confident, rambunctious. She was quickly adopted, by Emily’s cousin. “Grey,” the littler one is “a little bit special” as Stephanie puts it, in his requirements for more hands on help.

Stephanie is proactively trying to adopt out “Grey,” posting her cutest kitty photos online. Worst case scenario, the Tillquists will add him to their own family of two dogs.

“I feel so attached to him now,” she admits, despite a lifelong cat allergy. “I’ll be on antihistamines for the rest of my life.”

Little Grey and Stephanie Tillquist.

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