Donna Kaufman is every bit the biker babe.
Black leather jacket and boots, dramatic makeup, lithe in her jeans.
She straddles her motorcycle and fires it up.
The engine purrs.
So does the passenger — a cat named Ariel.
“I named her that because I figured she had an aerial view,” Kaufman said.
At just five weeks old, the black and white Domestic Shorthair/Manx was tossed in a Dumpster. A maintenance man heard her cries and rescued the tiny kitten. Now Ariel rides on a Harley-Davidson Sportster — inside a backpack cat carrier with her play mice and other favorite toys.
“It’s like a backwards pregnancy,” said Kaufman, wearing cat-eyed sunglasses. “I feel her moving around on my back.”
The duo turns heads on the roads that run along the sugar-white beaches of northwest Florida.
“People from all walks of life point and grin and wave. Tourists take pictures of her. It’s so cool,” Kaufman said.
As fate would have it, some heartless member of the public threw Ariel away as trash at the very place Kaufman works: the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society — PAWS — in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Known as the “Cathouse Madam,” Kaufman is an adoption counselor in the shelter’s double-wide trailer that houses some 120 stray felines on any given day.
The 52-year-old woman also heats the barn at her rural home in nearby Holley Navarre so she can foster the litters of kittens always coming through the shelter doors.
Including Ariel, she has 10 rescued cats.
The one named Wally likes to go kayaking and participate in parades.
“They go off of you, what you’re comfortable with,” Kaufman said.
One of her human daughters is even named Tabitha Katherine — that’s “Tabby Cat” for short.
“Donna is the epitome of the crazy cat lady,” said Tanya Keeler, who also works in the cat trailer. “She would live here if she could.”
Kaufman, “a one-in-a-million employee,” is known to stay well beyond her 8-to-5 shift — like until 1:30 a.m., said the shelter’s executive director, Dee Thompson.
She got in trouble for it. After that, she would pretend to leave at the end of the day with other staff, then sneak back, Thompson said with a laugh.
There’s still a lot to do after cleaning seemingly endless stinky litter boxes, food-encrusted bowls, and towels from ringworm-quarantined cages.
“She kisses every one of those cats goodnight before she leaves — every single night,” Thompson said. “I told her she’s going to start spitting up hairballs soon.”
She eats her lunch with one hand while tending to a sick cat in another.
“It’s just her way,” Thompson said.
While she loves all cats, she is most “fond” of black-and-white ones, such as Ariel, because they have “the most beautiful eyes,” Kaufman said.
Ariel, now 7, became a biker because Kaufman has to bring her to work each day. She can’t stay alone with the other cats at home, and she hangs out in the shelter office.
“She hates other cats,” Kaufman said.
She has a little notch missing out of an ear where a rat bit her. Being part Manx, she has no tail, but “there’s enough to show emotion,” Kaufman said.
Sitting in her scrubs, Kaufman spouts off little tidbits she has learned in 14 years of working at the shelter.
The most common cat in America? Brown tabby. Those cats with wide swirly stripes? They’re dubbed “watermelon tabbies” in this area near the Alabama border.
“I think that’s a Southern thing,” she said.
Nancy and David Morris of Fort Walton Beach recently adopted two cats from the shelter — Alicia and Elvira — after their cat died a few months ago.
“We had been talking about getting another cat — one, mind you — one,” Nancy Morris said.
But then they saw the two tabbies — one brown and one gray — sleeping on top of each other.
“Evidently they had been there the longest, and that was important to us,” Nancy Morris said.
Elvira had been at the shelter since April 2012; Alicia since January 2013.
Meeting Kaufman sealed the deal.
“Donna was just tremendous. She’s lovely, so caring, so compassionate. I’m just thrilled to death with her,” Nancy Morris said. “There’s nobody who loves cats more than she does, I think. She’s perfect for that job.”
Kaufman knows temperaments and assured them the cats would get along with their dogs.
What she doesn’t always know, though, is how a cat’s personality can blossom once it’s out of the shelter environment. Kaufman had described Alicia as shy and reticent.
”That cat is mouthy. That cat is opinionated,” Nancy Morris said. “I can’t wait to tell Donna.”
Not every cat’s story turns out as positive, though. Working at a shelter has its heartbreaking times. Kaufman remembers Baby and Asia, who were extremely ill when they came in, and nothing she did helped them.
They had to be euthanized.
“I prefer to do it myself,” Kaufman said. “You want to know that they’re going out with someone loving on them.”
About the author: Lorraine Whetstone is a journalist who’s won multiple Associated Press and state awards for her animal stories, including one about turkey vultures. She has covered a wide range of topics, including high-profile crime and eccentric artists, during her career at newspapers in Ohio, Arizona, and California. From a family of veterinarians and raised on a farm, she’s an active animal welfare volunteer and a lifelong adopter of strays. Her three rescue pets are cats Halle and Tiger, and a German Shepherd/Great Dane mix named Kona.