It was love at first sight for Suzanne Hoak, of Blasdell, when she saw Zipper the kitten on television.
But like most immediate attractions, there were a few hurdles.
Zipper, a light gray tabby with a white belly, was just 4 weeks old and had severe problems with both eyes. He wasn't up for adoption due to the amount of medical care he needed. And even when his immediate crisis was past, he would most likely be blind.
None of this mattered to Hoak.
She first saw the kitten – underweight, with his fur shaved due to lice, both eyes injured somehow – on a morning news segment that highlights a special program of the SPCA Serving Erie County called "Yelp for Help."
"People donate to the ‘Yelp for Help' fund specifically for emergency care for animals who don't have anybody to pay for their care," says Gina Browning, public relations director for the SPCA. Every Thursday, Browning shows off an animal who has been helped by the program to the audience. When it came time to tape the segment that would air Sept. 27, she didn't have to look far to find an animal that was in desperate need of medical attention.
The little kitten the staff named Zipper – probably because of a line of darker fur down his back – was found on Stone Street, near Broadway and Bailey Avenue, on Sept. 22. He weighed less than 2 pounds and was dehydrated and infested with fleas, lice and worms, but his real problem was his eyes. Both were either malformed or damaged and it was soon obvious that Zipper was or would be blind.
But the medical notes from Zipper's second day at the SPCA noted his bright attitude. "Kitten seems happy," they read. He was eager to eat as long as the food was warmed, making its aroma more apparent.
When Browning talked about Zipper on the segment, there was more uncertainty in her voice than hope. "I did not go on there saying, ‘This kitten needs a foster home,' because he was only 4 weeks old, and we thought he would be with us for a while," she says. "If I went on the air and said, ‘We really need someone to foster him!' we didn't think anybody would take that on, so we didn't even ask for a foster home."
As she prepared for work, Hoak glanced at the television. Her immediate reaction to Zipper's adorable little face was, "I have to get him and bring him home."
Hoak already had a 5-month-old cat, Jaxon, whom she had adopted from HEART in July to the delight of her 3-year-old granddaughter, Hayden, "a consummate animal lover" who cannot have a pet because of her father's allergies.
At the HEART adoption center in Hamburg, Hoak had selected Jaxon "because of the way he looked at me when I looked into his cage. That was it."
Strange, then, that Hoak was now head-over-heels in love with a blind cat.
Her reaction even puzzles Hoak herself. "I have seen that segment probably a thousand times, and I have gotten teary, I have wished I could help that poor animal, but I have never had the urge, ever, to pick up the phone and say ‘I want this animal,'?" she says.
That morning, she couldn't resist. She wrote down Browning's number at the SPCA and waited until 8 a.m. to call. She left a message. Twenty minutes later, even though "I was afraid I was making a pest of myself," she called again.
"She was crying the first time she called," Browning said. "She said, ‘I'm in love with that kitten. Is there anything I can do to get that kitten sooner rather than later?'?" As they spoke, Hoak reassured Browning that she was willing and able to continue Zipper's medical treatment, including antibiotics, painkillers, ointment for his eyes and breathing treatments for an upper respiratory infection.
Browning went to see the staff in the shelter's medical treatment area. "Our vet techs met with the veterinarian, and they decided that if [Hoak] was comfortable doing what we were doing, it's always better for the animal to be out of the shelter, so we changed plans."
Hoak got the news in a call from the SPCA. "They said that he could not be adopted yet, but that I could foster to adopt and they would still care for him and give me all his meds. I said that would be wonderful."
When Hoak met Zipper, her only reaction was, "I have to take him home and make him better." The SPCA provided all the instructions on how to administer his medications.
At home, Jaxon enthusiastically welcomed the newly renamed Maxx. "Jaxon absolutely loved him," says Hoak. "I had to keep them separate for a while because of Maxx's respiratory infection, but Jaxon wanted none of that. He would leap on him and start licking him, cleaning him and grooming him. I have pictures of them actually hugging each other."
On Oct. 25, an SPCA vet did remove Maxx's untreatable eyes, to keep them from becoming a source of pain and infection. Last week, the stitches came out; the only complication was one stitch that came untied, Hoak believes, because Jaxon groomed Maxx's eye too enthusiastically.
Once Maxx is healed, Hoak will adopt him and make arrangements for him to see her own vet for further medical care.
The SPCA might not always allow an animal that needs so much medical care to go home in a foster-to-adopt arrangement, says Browning. "We tell people that every situation is different, and just because it happened with this kitten, it doesn't mean it will always happen. … But Sue was willing to do all this work, and he's doing beautifully. He's already bonded with her and her cat."
Some people tell Hoak that they find it sad to see Maxx. "I tell them, look at him. Put him in your lap and he'll snuggle right down, or he'll get feisty and try to play with your fingers. He's such a happy cat."
Around the house, Maxx functions well. "I feed him and Jaxon side by side, and he finds his food without any trouble," says Hoak. "He can climb up my bed and up on the couch, but he has no perception of how high up he is, so he doesn't jump down, he backs down, fanny first. He does bump into walls a little bit, but he moves very slowly." As she talks, Maxx bats at some flowing bed-skirt fabric.
Maxx does have one issue at home. Although he can find and use the litter box, he isn't able to see well enough to effectively cover his waste, which cats do instinctively. So Jaxon has taken it upon himself to follow Maxx into the litter box and cover it for him, Hoak says.
"I've never heard anything like that," says Browning. "How does the other one know that he can't see? That's like a little miracle. It's just incredible."