These days, Stephanie Gonzalez is the president, cofounder, and creative director of Rescue Me Ohio, but back in 2009 she was just a would-be cat lady looking for her first pet.
“I was totally unaware of the horrible things that happen to cats and dogs and the fact that there are so many who are surrendered to shelters and rescues — especially cats. I had no idea,” Gonzalez tells Catster.
Her journey to rescue enlightenment began shortly after she moved into her own home and was finally in a place where she could have pets.
“I knew that I wanted to have a cat,” Gonzalez recalls, “but I wasn’t really planning on having two.”
It may not have been her intention, but a double adoption was in her future and would put her on the path to animal advocacy. After spotting a 3-year-old kitty named Minnie on Petfinder, Gonzalez headed to the Cleveland Animal Protective League’s adoption center — but Minnie wasn’t the only cat waiting there for her.
“I ended up seeing Shabby as well. You could tell he had kind of had a rough life,” she says, adding that she found herself drawn to the 9-year-old male, who looked about as good as his name implied.
“They think he was a stray. He was pretty thin,” says Gonzalez. “I thought, ‘I can’t leave knowing that I left him here by himself.’”
In that moment her decision was made, and both Minnie and Shabby came home with Gonzalez. The two sweet-tempered cats got along great and were wonderful company for their new human. Everything was going great for about three months — until Shabby got sick.
“He began vomiting quite excessively and frequently,” says Gonzalez, who whisked her senior rescue cat off to the vet and ensured he got the best care possible.
“He spent the night the first night,” she recalls. “They did a full blood panel, they watched him, and they gave him an IV so that he wouldn’t become dehydrated.”
When the blood panel didn’t provide any clues as to why Shabby was suddenly getting so sick, the cat went in for X-rays, which were also inconclusive.
The next step was exploratory surgery. It was hard for Gonzalez to decide to put her cat on the operating table, but it was Shabby’s best bet for finding a diagnosis and treatment.
“They released him to me after surgery, and the next day he passed at home with me,” she says. “They were never able to find what was wrong with him.”
Shabby’s death was difficult for Gonzalez. She had fallen in love with the old stray and had planned to give him all the comforts he’d missed out on for nine years.
“I was extremely angry for so many reasons. I was upset that he had not had the best life, and I was upset that I only got to have him in my life for such a short period of time,” she explains.
Her anger soon turned to action as she began to connect with animal advocates in her area. She soon developed a relationship with the founder of Kelley’s Kritters, a foster-based cat rescue in Ohio.
“She began to tell me about so many things rescue-related,” says Gonzalez, who got involved in circulating petitions to support companion animal welfare in Ohio.
Eventually, a friend put Gonzalez in touch with another Ohio woman, Christine Shepard-Desai, who was mourning the loss of her rescued King Charles Cavalier Spaniel.
Together, Gonzalez and Shepard-Desai formed Rescue Me Ohio in 2012. The organization doesn’t shelter or foster animals, but unites and supports the groups that do. Through Rescue Me Ohio, Gonzalez and Shepard-Desai have spearheaded pet food drives, education efforts, and spay and neuter campaigns. Every year, Rescue Me Ohio hosts an annual Spruce Up Day, during which volunteers descend upon a county shelter or adoption facility for a space makeover. This year, a cat shelter called Tails From the City Cleveland benefited from Spruce Up Day as Rescue Me Ohio volunteers cleaned up, assembled shelving units, and built a small forest of cat trees.
According to Gonzalez, feline focused organizations in Ohio struggle to find adopters, but Rescue Me Ohio is able to piggyback on the work it does around dogs in a way that benefits cats.
“We mix in feline education and adoptable cats to catch the eye of someone who perhaps didn’t know they wanted a cat.”
With hundreds of thousands of social media followers, Rescue Me Ohio is able to help cat-focused organizations get eyeballs on the adoption profiles of cats who need homes.
“We know other organizations that are strictly feline-related, and they don’t get the support that we do, so we utilize our audience to really push the adoption of felines.”
Unlike Shabby, the majority of cats highlighted by Rescue Me Ohio are in good health and will make some lucky human a good companion for years to come. Gonzalez tells Shabby’s story not to reinforce negative stereotypes of rescue pets as being inferior, but rather to highlight all the ways in which we can prevent animals from living lives like his. Despite the pain of losing Shabby so quickly, Gonzalez has no regrets about leaving the shelter with two cats.
“I like to think that he came into my life to teach me about rescue and the plight of companion animals,” says Gonzalez.
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About the author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but Specter the kitten, GhostBuster the Lab and her newest dog, Marshmallow, make her fur family complete. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google +