HOULTON, Maine — Abused, disfigured and abandoned. If anyone had good reason to have a massive chip on his tiny, furry shoulder, it’s Emerson the cat.
Instead, the 10-year-old unofficial mascot at the Houlton Humane Society is devoting all of his remaining lives to spreading love and joy as he greets everyone walking through the shelter’s front door.
Emerson is not like other cats, having suffered serious damage to his spinal cord and a snapped neck, according to his owner and Houlton Humane Society Executive Director Heather Miller.
Those injuries left him without the use of his back legs, the inability to urinate and chronic issues affecting his ability to eat and drink on his own.
But as Emerson clearly demonstrates as he gets around using a special feline wheelchair apparatus, it’s hard to keep a good cat down.
“He was brought in to us last August,” Miller said Friday as Emerson wandered around checking out what was going on in the society’s reception area. “A lady found him, and when he was checked out by our vet, it was determined he had a broken neck, spinal cord damage, broken ribs and what looked to be chemical burns on his feet.”
By September, Miller and her husband, Jonathan Miller, who have huge and very soft hearts for “special needs” animals, were working with Emerson on getting him to use a wheelchair that Jonathan Miller, in true Yankee fashion, had created using PVC pipes and bicycle training wheels.
“It was almost too heavy for Emerson to get moving,” Heather Miller said. “But someone saw it on Facebook and sent us a cat wheelchair.”
The “chair” holds Emerson’s back legs off the floor and allows him to use his front paws to pull himself around.
It took awhile to convince Emerson of the benefits of the new adaptive device — the inherent laziness of cats did not help the process, according to Miller — but by December he was scooting around with little trouble.
“We put him in the wheelchair for a couple of hours at a time,” she said. “In the beginning, he had to get his front leg muscles built up.”
He is a sight to behold, Miller said.
Emerson’s injuries left the cat with a permanent tilt to his head giving him a somewhat quizzical expression. The inability to control his bowels or bladder means he wears a kitty diaper, and Miller dresses him in a “onesie” to avoid his getting chafed by the sling holding him in position on the wheelchair.
Staff at the humane society have blinged-out the chair with bright stickers, ribbons and a jaunty pennant announcing that Emerson is “Number one.”
As if he needed any reminders of that, Miller said.
The tabby has his own Facebook page with about 14,000 friends and has helped raise thousands of dollars for local animal rescue organizations through personal appearances and endorsements.
“The mailman asked me not long ago, ‘Who the heck is Emerson?’” Miller said. “He gets way more letters and packages than I do and has a lot more clothes than I do because people keep sending him outfits.”
Around town, Miller said she is not known as “Heather,” but as “Emerson’s mom.”
Spend a few moments with Emerson, and it’s easy to see why he’s gathered so many fans.
“He is precious,” Caroline Rossignol of Connor Plantation. said when she met Emerson on Friday. “He is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
Rossignol was at the humane society Friday with her grandmother Willa Rossignol to see about adopting a dog, but were sidetracked the moment they walked in as Emerson strolled/wheeled over to meet them.
“This is a first,” Caroline Rossignol said of seeing a cat in a wheelchair. “But he seems happy and well adjusted.”
Her grandmother agreed. And after hearing Emerson’s story of past abuse, she said she is happy he has found a good home.
“Anytime I come to Houlton, I am going to come and see this baby,” Willa Rossignol said.
Emerson is not the only special needs pet the Millers have.
On Friday, Kino, a 200-pound St. Bernard with congenital heart failure and rescued from a meth lab, was hanging out near the front desk.
“She has to be with me all the time,” Miller said. “I once had to leave for six days, and she did not eat the entire time I was gone.”
In addition to Emerson and Kino, the Millers share their home with a variety of other special needs pets.
At home are five dogs, two that are blind and three with three legs; four three legged cats and two blind cats; and a several rabbits with their own health issues, including seizures and blindness.
Miller admits the ongoing costs of caring for and feed Emerson a special diet can be expensive and a lot of work. She declined to comment on the exact amounts she and her husband spend on Emerson and the other animal’s care, other than to say they are happy to sacrifice vacations and personal items to do afford it.
“People know I will take in the animals no one else wants,” Miller said. “They all deserve a chance, [and] the payback is the in the reward of how forgiving these animals are.”
But Emerson, Miller said, is very special.
“He is my heart, my baby boy,” she said. “He has so much personality, and he doesn’t know he’s different.”
People can learn a lot from the resilient feline who seems to only want to be near people, despite what humans likely did to him in the past.
“Emerson holds no grudges,” Miller said. “He’s a very forgiving cat.”
That’s not to say he does not have his moments, such as when Dr. Lori Brown, the humane society’s veterinarian, came in to examine Emerson and give his ears a good cleaning Friday afternoon.
“If he could walk, he’d run away right now,” Brown said as she used elongated swabs to clean the cat’s ears.
For his part, throughout the procedure, Emerson glared at the wall registering his displeasure as only a cat can.
But soon he was again purring and doing what he does best — making people smile and reflect a bit on the blessings in their own lives.
“People always feel sorry for themselves,” Rossignol said watching as her granddaughter tried to take a photo of Emerson, who was more interested in head-butting the cell phone. “But look at Emerson — he’s more human than a lot of humans I know.”
The Houlton Humane Society gladly accepts donations mailed to P.O. Box 548, Houlton, ME 04730. Donations can also be made at firstname.lastname@example.org