If you ask Marty Hoewe, blindness is her cats’ ability, not their disability. When it comes to blind cats, Marty knows her stuff — she and her husband, Fred, have seven special-needs cats, two of whom are blind, and Fred is legally blind himself.
Their other cats’ disabilities include diabetes, hip dysplasia, and claustrophobia — "she’s our odd girl," Marty says of Hera, the cat who does not like to be caught in small spaces.
But it was the couple’s blind cat, Phaedra, who inspired them to found Phaedra & Phriends in May 2012. Their neighborhood rescue effort focuses on feeding and caring for stray and feral cats in their mobile home community in Michigan, as well as undertaking trap-neuter-return projects to prevent the population from growing. They’ve also taken their rescue and fundraising efforts online and provided a forum for special-needs kitty caregivers across the globe.
According to Marty, without the efforts of Phaedra & Phriends, which at any point has between three to six neighbors or volunteers assisting with feeding stations and TNR efforts, many of the cats in her community would meet an untimely end.
"If we didn’t care for the feral cats by proving them with food, shelter and safe places to go at night, they would be in danger of being trapped and killed," Marty says. "This area has a ‘zero tolerance’ for feral cats."
Marty says that TNR efforts in this population are especially vital because of a genetic condition called micro-opthalmia, which means "tiny eyes." All six of the blind kittens Marty and Fred have rescued from the feral colony have had this condition, including Phaedra.
"Apparently the gene for micro-opthalmia is running through our colony," Marty says. "That’s why it’s so important that we continue to spay and neuter these cats, so we can stop the gene from spreading further."
Despite the cats’ disabilities, Marty knows that blind and special-needs cats deserve a chance at life just as much as any of the others. She says that a common misconception about disabled cats is that they are "disposable and need to be put down immediately." Through her experiences, she knows that exactly the opposite is true. Her blind cats, especially, have amazed people with their ability to live life to the fullest despite their lack of sight.
"Most people who watch them play wouldn’t even know they couldn’t see, because they use their whiskers, tail, hearing, and sense of smell to run around the house like all other cats," Marty says. "Yes, they do run into things from time to time — but so do I."
Phaedra, especially, has shown a knack for making friends. In fact, the cat is so laid back that Marty and Fred are in the process of training her to become a therapy cat.
"Whether it’s an autistic child, someone with Down’s Syndrome, or an elderly person, she has the patience of a saint," Marty says. "Kids have poked at her and tugged on her ears, but she has never once gotten upset, hissed, or swatted at them. Now if I was to do that to her, she’d smack me, so I think she somehow can sense when it’s a person ‘in need’ of love. She just accepts them for who they are."
Though rescuing cats like Phaedra is rewarding, it is also challenging. Marty and Fred often struggle to provide for the feral cats in their community, who require food, shelter, and medical care. That’s one reason they have taken fundraising and donation efforts online; visit their Facebook page to learn more.
"My husband and I are not rich by any means, but do whatever we can to make sure [the cats] get the care they deserve," Marty says.
Adding to Marty and Fred’s financial burden is the fact that the couple has garnered a bit of a reputation around their neighborhood.
"We now have the reputation of specializing in the care of special animals, so we’ve had people show up at our door with an animal in need, or we get called when help is needed elsewhere," Marty says.
Despite the struggles, Marty, a lifelong animal lover who has volunteered at her local Humane Society and used to accompany her cousin’s husband, a veterinarian, on farm calls when she was a child, says that as long as there are cats in need, she will continue to do what she can to help. She is grateful for the others she has met through Phaedra & Phriends who are doing the same, such as Flash the Therapy Cat, Milo’s Sanctuary, and the Blind Cat Rescue & Sanctuary.
"With the support of our friends from New Hampshire to Hawaii and across the entire globe, we continue to fight for those that have no voice," Marty says. "Ask us if helping them all was worth it — heck yeah! And as long as there are special babies that need our help, we’ll keep doing it."
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