In her 10 years at Houlton Humane Society in Houlton, Maine, Heather Miller has heard some shocking stories. She’s seen more than 65 animals seized from someone’s home, many of them severely neglected and abused. She found a cat abandoned outdoors in the middle of winter, suffering from frostbite and pneumonia. She saw a dog too sick and hungry to feed her own puppies.
At the shelter, which Miller has run for the last six years, she sees animal cruelty much too frequently ÔÇô- often once it’s already too late.
“I think it goes unnoticed because we’re in an area where there’s no big city,” Miller says. “Everybody kind of lives back on a dirt road or back in the woods, so you don’t see it until somebody makes a complaint about it.”
In addition to working at the shelter, Miller also runs a licensed special-needs rescue out of her home and is a licensed animal control officer for the state. But she hasn’t seen a case of feline cruelty worse than Emerson’s. When the gray tabby cat arrived at the shelter as an owner surrender last August, he had a broken neck.
According to Emerson’s Facebook page, “The woman who brought him in claimed she ‘snapped’ his neck because he was annoying to her.”
In addition to his current injury, veterinary examinations revealed Emerson had previously broken his neck in another place. He also had spinal cord damage and broken ribs, and three of his feet were burned. “This poor cat had suffered at the hands of a monster,” his Facebook page says. As a result of his injuries, Emerson cannot feel his back legs and he requires a wheelchair to get around.
Though Miller is experienced in caring for special-needs cats, Emerson was the first cat she cared for who needed a wheelchair. Lacking the necessary supplies, she and her husband built Emerson’s first chair themselves. The apparatus helped with Emerson’s mobility but was “kind of bulky,” Miller says. Fortunately, an anonymous donor helped Emerson out, giving him a shiny, new wheelchair with a harness and leg support.
“It works really well for him,” Miller says. “He does it two or three times a day for one to two hours. I also have a playpen in my office and at home.”
Animal cruelty charges have been filed against the woman who surrendered Emerson, and she’s supposed to go to court later this month. Unfortunately, the law is not on Emerson’s side. Miller has even seen animal cruelty cases end with the offender getting some of their animals back.
“[The court date has] been pushed back at least three times due to some other case coming up,” Miller says. “We’re in a small community. Sadly the state of Maine does not have the strictest animal cruelty laws.”
The good news for Emerson: Miller and her husband decided to adopt the cat. Because of his disabilities, he requires a lot of care -ÔÇô for instance, he cannot clean himself, and he either must wear a diaper or have his bladder manually expressed. But everything Miller gives to Emerson he gives back to her twofold.
“He loves everybody,” she says. “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. And he doesn’t even care that he’s different. I mean, you wouldn’t even know it. Obviously you can tell by looking at him, but he’s not in any pain. I think he’s just come to accept it’s normal for him now, so he doesn’t even think about it.”
Emerson is such a friendly, mild-mannered guy that Miller takes him to work with her every day, transporting him to and from the shelter in a car seat. Despite all he’s been through, Emerson is extremely friendly ÔÇô- and forgiving, a quality Miller says people find inspiring.
“The fact that a person did this to him but he’s so lovable to everyone he meets is a quality that a lot of people could learn,” Miller says. “He’s just happy all the time. I get a lot of messages from people who are disabled, and Emerson makes them realize it’s okay and they can get through it. I like reading those because I feel like he’s making a difference.”
In addition to sharing the love, Emerson also helps Miller spread the word about animal cruelty and prevention. Over the holidays, Miller held a supply drive for four area shelters. In January, they started selling Team Emerson decals and T-shirts, splitting the funds between area shelters and spay-neuter clinics.
“It gets his name out there and gets people talking,” Miller says. “People see the shirt and ask who Emerson is. It starts a conversation: If you see [animal abuse], say something. You have to be their voice.”
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About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.