The first time Bekah Wilcox saw a picture of Bella, the black kitten her neighbor was trying to catch as part of a trap-neuter-return project in Brooklyn, her only thought was, "I have to help that cat."
Wilcox volunteers at For Animals, a nonprofit group dedicated to providing so-called “TNR” for feral cats and dogs in New York City, and finding them homes when possible. In January 2011, Bella was a few months old and living on the streets with a severe facial wound. Once the group managed to trap her, Wilcox discovered the full extent of her injury.
"Her cheek was — they call it degloved," Wilcox says. "From the side of her nose the skin was pulled back, and her whole cheek was exposed, and her lip was missing on the left side, and she’s missing I think all of her teeth on the top, and she has a couple on the bottom …. We don’t really know what happened, but it seems like maybe some kind of blunt trauma because the teeth are missing as well."
While the rest of the feral colony went to the ASPCA mobile spay-and-neuter clinic, Bella went to the Humane Society of New York, which provides low-cost medical care for feral cats. They spayed Bella, stitched up her face, and sent her to a foster home. A few days later, her stitches burst. This scenario would become commonplace in the three foster homes Bella went through following her initial surgeries; she was a kitten, and her normal play and behavior were not conducive to healing.
"When the stitches came out, it was like her face was falling off, and it was very upsetting and overwhelming for somebody to deal with," Wilcox says. "Eventually I was like, give me the cat. I’ll take care of her. It’s just one of those situations where you seize control."
Bella’s sister, Pom Pom, was the only other kitten in the colony, and Wilcox decided to foster her as well so the sisters could be together. But their personalities couldn’t have been more different. Bella had become extremely social due to the handling she received during her eight surgeries. "The first time I took her to my private vet, her stitches had come out and her face was hanging off, and she just started rolling around on her back on the exam table, purring," Wilcox recalls. But Pom Pom was behind schedule, having been in a foster home that wasn’t familiar with socialization techniques.
"Pom Pom didn’t make progress fast enough," Wilcox says. "So when I got her she was -ÔÇô I wouldn’t say she was feral, but there’s just something different about Pom Pom. She is the strangest cat. It’s like there’s a little piece of feralness that’s just stuck with her, and there’s this constant inner struggle — am I feral or am I friendly?"
Next came the challenge of finding these two unique black cats a home. Wilcox started taking the pair to adoption events, which turned out to be more of a struggle than she’d bargained for. Pom Pom gave Wilcox no trouble, but Bella was another story.
"She knew from the moment I got dressed that there was an adoption event, and she would hide," Wilcox says. "And then it just became this big ordeal to get her out of hiding and into the carrier, and the fear ÔÇô- her eyes were just so big, and her heart was pounding out of her chest, and I just felt so bad.
“The whole trauma of getting there was heartbreaking. Like maybe she thinks she’s going to the vet again for another surgery."
While the cats were typically well behaved at the events, the humans sometimes were not. One time a mother told her children to look away from Bella; another time a group of teenage boys called Bella names. On the flip side, people were drawn to Bella because of her disfigurement and wanted to adopt her, but not Pom Pom. The experiences were frequently discouraging, but Wilcox found a way to give the negativity a positive spin.
"I would use those opportunities to explain to them what happened and that this was the product of her being born on the street, and this is why people should spay and neuter their pets, so you don’t have a kitten born outside that is subjected to tragedies," she says. "Even though Bella survived hers and is no worse for the wear because of it, it’s not something any animal should have to go through."
After one too many stressful and ultimately disappointing adoption attempts, Wilcox finally gave in. She adopted Pom Pom, and her roommate, Renee Valdez, adopted Bella, allowing the sisters to remain together, at least for now.
"The thought of her with another family made me angry and sad, so I knew it was too late," Valdez says of her decision to adopt Bella. "She had adopted me. There’s a lot of inflection in her meows, so it’s easy to tell when I irritate her or when she is questioning something. We have a good stream of communication going on."
Much like Valdez’s unique bond with Bella, Pom Pom bonded with Wilcox’s blind cat, Momo. When Pom Pom is around Momo, she will let Wilcox pet her, an interaction the feral part of her personality usually protests.
"If [Pom Pom is] with Momo, it’s like the cat’s on Ecstasy," Wilcox says. "She’s purring, rolling around on her back. You can rub her belly, you can pick her up. It’s like Momo is a drug for her."
Wilcox has enjoyed seeing people’s positive reactions to Bella and Pom Pom via their Facebook page, which she initially created as an adoption tool and has watched blossom into the cats’ own little fan base. Bella and Pom Pom were Wilcox’s last effort at fostering cats -ÔÇô she describes herself as a "multiple-time foster failure." But she continues educating the public on the importance of TNR through her work with For Animals.
"Trap-neuter-return is a really important part of what we do to prevent these things from happening," Wilcox says. "Not that we’re not overjoyed to have Bella and Pom Pom in our lives, but obviously there are thousands of homeless animals. They were the lucky ones."