I just met a celebrity cat. Not Tardar Sauce or Lil Bub, but Freida, the tiny tortie whose desperate situation tugged at heartstrings all over the world and put a small but incredibly hard-working rescue group in the international spotlight. Freida was left to die in a ditch in Maine. As part of her rescue, she was given tiny sweaters to wear because so much of her fur was missing or had to be removed.
Last weekend I visited Forgotten Felines of Maine. I spoke with Executive Director Pamela Hansberry as well as volunteers Ann McLafferty, Robin Fisher, and Stephanie Fournier. There was also Fournier’s daughter Kristi, and, of course, a clowder of cats.
While a silver tabby named Cloud curled up next to me and began purring, Hansberry updated me on Freida, who watched us quietly as we adored her.
Forgotten Felines is sending her records to a geneticist at Tufts University who became fascinated with Freida’s case after reading about her multiple health issues. This person wants to see whether genetic issues are responsible for her incredibly brittle bones, ongoing anemia, paper-thin skin, tiny size, and liver and gallbladder abnormalities.
The group is also arranging for a consultation with a specialist to figure out what is going on with her liver and whether the problem can be resolved.
Freida has gained almost a pound in the past month and a half. When she was rescued on April 10, she weighed 1.9 pounds; today she weighs 2.7 pounds.
Hansberry says she has received about 100 private messages from people wanting to adopt Freida, but she and some other volunteers aren’t sure it would be a good idea -ÔÇô at least for now.
"Freida has been a real blessing to us when it comes to raising awareness about abandoned and abused cats," said Hansberry. "But [our concern is] her health: She’s going to require thousands of dollars’ worth of vet care down the road," and if an adopter doesn’t have the resources to do that, it wouldn’t be good for either Freida or the adopter.
Forgotten Felines of Maine’s volunteers are astonished and delighted that Freida’s story has brought much-needed attention to the plight of abused, abandoned, and feral cats — and, by association, to Forgotten Felines.
The organization was born in January 2009, when Hansberry, who had rescued cats on her own for 25 years, joined a small group of like-minded people. They concluded that a nonprofit group would make it easier to raise money for rescue and trap-neuter-return.
In 2012, Forgotten Felines helped 391 cats on a budget of $50,000. The organization serves an area of about 27,000 square miles — larger than New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts combined.
The day before I arrived, Forgotten Felines volunteers had made a 12-hour, 250-mile journey, which took them around eastern and central Maine to pick up 10 adult cats and three kittens in need of rescue or spay/neuter services.
The group manages many feral cat colonies, says Fisher: "We teach people how to trap, get them set up with the vet and colony managers, and [Forgotten Felines] pays the vet bill."
Volunteers remove kittens from the colony and socialize them, while adults are neutered, vaccinated, and returned.
I paused to photograph Freida, and it didn’t take long for Miracle, a cauliflower-eared, stub-tailed black cat to settle into the seat I’d warmed up for him.
Miracle earned his name: He was hit by a car and received no vet care for 10 days. When he was rescued, his tail had to be amputated because it was gangrenous, and his deep and grisly wounds were so severely infected that the vet didn’t know whether his leg, or his life, could be saved. Months of wet-dry wraps and painful skin debridement later, Miracle went home with McLafferty to finish his recovery.
"After all that attention, I couldn’t adopt him out," she said.
McLafferty isn’t just a foster carer and transport volunteer; she also serves on Forgotten Felines’ board of directors.
In 2012, Forgotten Felines of Maine raised half of its annual budget through bake sales and craft shows as well as staffing informational tables at events. An annual auction and yard sale raised another 10 percent, a newsletter mailing brought in about $5,000, and the rest came from grant support.
"The volunteers put in a lot of their own money as well," said Fisher. "They buy cages, pay for their own gas and food during transports, and so on."
Fisher herself has been with the group since 2009, when she saw Forgotten Felines’ request for foster homes on VolunteerMaine.org, a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities.
"My first fosters were Sophie and Eva,” she said. “They came from a feral colony in Eddington as tiny little kittens, only four or five weeks old."
Stephanie Fournier became involved with the organization last September, shortly after a fire had destroyed the home of a fosterer and created a desperate need for foster families. Fournier and her daughter Kristi have been fostering cats ever since. They also staff tables at events, assist in graphic design, and do whatever else is needed.
"And I love cats!" Kristi said as she petted Lucky, a long-haired black cat who was found with an embedded collar, which had to be surgically removed, requiring more than 40 stitches around his neck and under a foreleg.
"Our foster homes are the backbone of our organization. Without them we couldn’t do our work," said Hansberry. Forgotten Felines has about 120 cats in its network of foster homes and feral cat barns throughout Downeast and Central Maine.
"It’s a great organization," said Fisher. "Everybody is wanted, you feel so welcomed, and you know you’re appreciated. Pam appreciates you and she lets you know it."
Forgotten Felines of Maine is showing its appreciation for Freida, too, by showering her with the love, food, and vet care she had never received.
Thanks to this scrappy little cat with an unstoppable determination to live, a group of hard-working volunteers that has been saving feline lives for more than four years now has its moment to shine.
About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.
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