RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — When it came time Saturday to go home after months of convalescence from severe burns suffered in the disastrous Cedar fire, the horse named Yankee got fidgety.
He nudged his owner with his nose and made a snickering sound. The horse that had initially been frozen in pain and shock has come a long way.
"Yankee has his personality back," said John Van Zante, an official at the Helen Woodward Animal Center. "He's been a good patient so long, now he's ready to be Yankee again."
At age 32, Yankee was already in his sunset years when fire erupted the night of Oct. 25 not far from the Lakeside home of his owners, Carolyn Prida-Casbier and her husband, Ben Casbier.
Carolyn was camping in the mountains when the fire hit. Ben was home but had only minutes to flee. He could only grab a pet cockatiel and try to outrun the flames that quickly destroyed the family home.
"I patted Yankee on the head and said goodbye," said Ben, a recently retired U.S. mail carrier. "I never thought I'd see him again."
But Yankee survived and the story of his recovery at the Woodward center has made him one of the symbols of the devastation wrought by fires that ripped through San Diego County -- 300,000 acres burned, 2,300 homes destroyed or damaged, 16 people killed, more than 1,000 horses evacuated and uncounted dozens of domestic animals killed.
Burned over more than 30% of his body, his face swollen beyond recognition, Yankee underwent multiple surgeries and skin grafts.
Like all burn victims, Yankee was vulnerable to infections that could prove fatal. He lost pounds but has since returned to his pre-fire weight of 1,100 pounds.
Carolyn lived in her SUV in the center's parking lot for weeks to be close to Yankee during his treatments. Another horse and two goats also left behind had escaped unscathed.
"My animals are far more important than the house we lost," said Carolyn, a mail carrier. "If Yankee hadn't made it, I don't think I'd have made it."
Media coverage has made the horse of undistinguished bloodline into a celebrity. Schoolchildren sent get-well cards to the center. Contributors kicked in money to pay Yankee's $8,000 bill for a stay that began Nov. 3.
Part of his face remains paralyzed. His beloved carrots have to be run through a juicer. His other treats are pulverized in a coffee grinder. He can go for rides but cannot be in direct sunlight for very long.
His long recovery under the care of veterinarian Lynn Richardson was helped by a placid temperament. Not all animals are good patients.
"Yankee is what we call bomb-proof," Van Zante said. "He's been poked, prodded, walked, X-rayed, photographed."
Like many fire victims, Ben and Carolyn are living in temporary quarters, a mobile home.
The couple has built a shelter for Yankee and their other animals. Yankee, they're confident, will soon forget his trauma and his scars.
"Animals don't feel sorry for themselves like humans," Ben said. "They just keep going."