For cats with disabilities, ending up in a shelter is usually the end of the line. These cats are considered unadoptable and hopeless. But to Michele Hoffman, founder and president of Milo’s Sanctuary and Special Needs Cat Rescue in Burbank, California, this isn’t true. She founded Milo’s because she believes all cats deserve a second chance at life, especially those who have disabilities or have been abused. Michele frequently gets calls from shelters and other rescues about those so-called "unadoptables." The ones who are blind, have one eye or crooked legs, or who are just too old for anyone to consider them. These are the ones Michele tries to save.
"When I started rescuing seriously 15 years ago I saw the special-needs cats being overlooked at shelters and adoption events," said Michele. "That’s when I knew my life’s work would be saving these special-needs souls."
Cats lucky enough to find their way to Milo’s are guaranteed a loving and safe forever home no matter their medical needs or disabilities. The physical challenges can be as varied as their personalities. Like Daisy, Milo’s "Official Spokescat." Rescued from a filthy hoarder house crammed with 300 cats and dogs, Daisy was terribly sick and had lost an eye due to serious infection. Thinking she had no chance, the shelter was preparing to euthanize her when Milo’s saved her. Today she is an energetic one-eyed cutie who charms everyone who meets her.
Then there’s Roo (called a “kangaroo cat” or “squitten”), who was born with stunted forelegs. His owner gave him up because his fianc├® found Roo "creepy." When Michele took him in, she found he’d never had any vet care, shots, or neutering. Milo’s got him the best vet care and lots of love, and Roo blossomed. Today he’s just one of the guys and hops like a rabbit and climbs the tallest cat trees.
Many Milo’s cats need ongoing specialized medical care, so running the sanctuary can get very expensive. Accordingly, Michele has become very creative in her fundraising.
"We’ve done Bowl-A-Thons, online auctions, an annual calendar contest -ÔÇô always looking for new ways to raise money so we can save more cats," she said. Because Michele knows that "it takes a village" to do what the group does, Milo’s Facebook and Twitter pages are a priority and great tools to raise awareness, and they have gained Milo’s thousands of followers. One of the best ways fans help Milo’s and have the chance to be more involved with the cats is by sponsoring a Milo’s Cat in the group’s Lifetime Care Program.
"Contributions benefit all our cats but sponsorships let our supporters help that one cat they feel especially close to,” Michele said. “For the ones that need daily medications or extra vet visits, these sponsorships literally save lives."
Many Milo’s fans have also helped with rescue efforts. Just recently, Kirby and Kramer, two beautiful but blind Siamese cats were abandoned in a box in a park. Thankfully an animal lover found them and connected with a Milo’s supporter, which led to the cats to Milo’s care. Safe and happy, the cats now live the good life with one of Milo’s dedicated fosters, and they play like any other cat. They have no idea they’re considered disabled.
Saving animals is second nature to Michele: "I have been doing rescue since I could walk" she says. "My mom taught me the value of every life at a young age. "
All of Milo’s rescues are special to Michele, but some have reached a little deeper into her heart.
"Persephone, my 14-year-old calico, was given to me at three days old. She almost died from a parasite but fought back and lived. She taught me to never give up hope,” Michele said. “Another special cat was Dharma, a lynx point I rescued at three months old from a high-kill shelter.”
Michele explained that a group of teenagers had poured drain opener on her head and neck, and Dharma required months of medical care.
“She recovered so well she became Milo’s first spokescat,” Michele said. "She went to every event and just loved people, especially kids. She taught me forgiveness."
Many Milo’s cats become special to their supporters, too, such as Finnegan, a sick blind kitten dumped in a high-kill shelter. As soon as Milo’s rescued him he became a "fan favorite" with his fluffy coat and smudged nose. Not long ago Finn posed for a marketing campaign for Target stores and recently his face went up on displays in Target’s pet food aisles. Fans across the country have been doing "Finn Spotting," going to their local Target to take pictures of Finnegan peeking at them above the stacks of cat food.
Many Milo’s fans might be surprised to learn that besides running the rescue 24/7, Michele also has a full-time job in the entertainment industry. How does she do it?
"I always find the strength to do what I need for Milo’s,” she said. “It drives me to get up in the morning no matter what I have to face that day. I look at those beautiful cat faces in my home or on Facebook and it’s all worthwhile, no matter how painful or difficult. I have an amazing team of volunteers, fosters, and supporters across the world. I feel so lucky to have found my purpose. These beautiful cats give so much in return it’s incredible."
Michele said she hopes getting to know Milo’s beautiful cats will get people to consider adopting their own special needs cat.
"It’s pretty easy to make a home ‘special-needs friendly’ with some minor adjustments," she said.
For example, accommodating a blind cat can be as simple as not moving furniture once the cat has learned the layout. For older cats, or ones with leg deformities, finding or building a small ramp can give them access to windows or the bed.
Michele said most important is to never let a disabled cat go outdoors: "I personally don’t think any cat should be an outside cat, there are too many risks like cars and predators. But for cats with disabilities, the outdoors are really dangerous because they can’t defend themselves."
What would she tell someone considering adopting a special needs cat?
"I’d tell them how normal they are,” she said. “That they play and cuddle -ÔÇô and yes, they DO use the litter box! With a little patience and a lot of love, you’ll forget they’re special needs and just come to think of them as special."
Katherine Ashe is an animal-loving public relations veteran who donates her time and experience to help Milo’s Sanctuary. She lives in Northern California with her two cats who enjoy assisting her when she writes by walking repeatedly across her keyboard.
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