I’m no classic “cat lady,” but I’ve always had at least one cat in my life at any given time – born into a house of cat lovers, I acquired various kittens throughout the course of my adult life, including my most recent acquisitions, Bella and Luna, a pair of sister kittens found in the Florida wilds and imported to New Hampshire in 2016 by Darbster Kitty, a West Side cat rescue organization. I adopted them a few months after the loss of Tiny, daughter of Sunday, a stray we found back in the 1990s in a wooded area behind my parents’ home in Pennsylvania. Tiny lived a good life, including a stint as a New York City cat with my son, before retiring to Manchester.
So it was with great admiration that I learned about a heroic kitten rescue by my friend Laura Gilman, who was away on business in Atlanta in September when she heard the call of the wild. Gilman is a volunteer for Manchester Animal Shelter. If you were a punster, you might call her an advo-CAT (and dog) extraordinaire – based on her diligent advocacy efforts here to make sure the most vulnerable of four-legged creatures are safe and cared for.
All that was reinforced when I heard about the time she was heading out for something to eat while on a dinner break from an all-day conference in Georgia.
“We were walking up to the galley way over an overpass and I heard little meows,” says Gilman, who was with two colleagues at the time – all of them in business attire and heels.
“We all heard it. The others thought it was a bird, but I knew it was a kitten. We turned around and followed the noise to a tall sharp patch of Savannah grass. Walking in was difficult in our outfits and shoes. I decided to record the cat’s meows on my phone and, whenever it stopped, I played it back so that the kitten would respond to it,” she explained.
Brilliant. I would not have thought to do that.
Gilman and her friends started poking around in the grass with no luck. Then, they spotted a sewer grate.
“I took off my plastic badge holder and put my phone in the badge holder and lowered it into the drain. That’s when I saw the cute kitty a couple feet down,” Gilman says.
Gilman called the fire department who told her it was an animal control problem. So she called police, who said they’d send someone out. That never happened.
Good thing Gilman is a woman of action.
She leveraged her resourcefulness and knowledge of animal rescue protocol, along with her social media account, putting out an APB for help.
“I knew we couldn’t leave it there, and we all got attached fairly quickly,” says Gilman, who went into a nearby building and asked a maintenance man for some tools. Gilman attempted to open the sewer grate. When that didn’t work, she went back to her original idea, luring the kitten closer to the grate opening by playing its own meows on loop. Finally, they were able to reach down and lift the kitten out.
Instead of taking a dinner break, Gilman and her friends spent the next several hours trying to figure out what to do with a stray kitten on a Friday night in Georgia. They returned to the Renaissance Waverly for their evening meeting, canvassing the hotel lobby for someone kind enough to kitten-sit for a few hours. As happy endings go, a woman working the front desk was smitten by the kitten and, long story short, agreed to not only tend to the kitty, but eventually decided she wanted to adopt it.
His name is now Waverly – named for the hotel where the universe conspired to give him a second chance.
“The tough part with an animal like that is that you don’t want to give it away to someone you don’t know. But if the city of Atlanta wasn’t going to come get it, and knowing they are a kill-state, if they had come they might have euthanized it. We figured it might be the best option, to take a chance on this kind lady,” Gilman says.
Remarkable. I told Gilman I thought it was amazing that she was in that place at the right time to do what she does, because I don’t know how many people, presented with the same scenario, would have missed dinner and crawled around in the tall grass to save a homeless kitten.
Turns out Gilman knows lots of people right here in Manchester who commit daily acts of animal kindness. People like Cheri Rea, who has over the years accepted the reality that she has a literal animal magnetism – animals in need always seem to find her. She can’t say for sure, but figures she’s rescued upwards of 50 animals
It’s like she’s got a built-in frequency to receive Bat Signals, only it was Cat Signals in the scenario that unfolded on Sept. 23, as Rea was driving on Spruce Street.
She posted the following on her Facebook page on Sept. 23, after stopping to care for a critically-injured cat she came upon, that had been the victim of a hit-and-run.
Nobody else stopped to render aid.
“To the person who hit this beautiful baby but kept driving – I hope you can sleep at night and that your day will come. I picked her up as she was having a seizure after being hit – she died in my arms. Petite young DSH [domestic short-hair] female brown tiger cat found hit by car on Spruce Street (nearest intersections are Belmont and Old Falls Road) in Manchester; she did not survive her injuries. CAT IS NURSING! Remains brought to Manchester Animal Shelter for cremation. I am actively looking for kittens. RIP sweet baby. I’m sorry if the picture is offensive to some – I took pictures in case someone may be missing her; this poor soul deserved better and deserves to be remembered. I’m so sorry sweet girl.”
Rea told me she has been doing the quiet work of animal rescue for about 20 years. It’s her calling. When not working the night shift as a nurse for humans, she’s a daytime animal rescue superheroine.
What Rea did next solidifies her status as a superhero, in my eyes..
“I didn’t see her get hit, but she was still moving. I knew she was still alive, so I picked her up. She passed away in my arms. My intention was to rush her to the ER vet. Instead I took her to the shelter for a scan, to see if she had a microchip,” says Rea.
That’s when she learned that the cat was a nursing mother.
“I went back to area where she was found and literally went door-to-door, asking to see if anyone was missing a cat, or had seen a cat around. Almost everyone said no,” she told me.
At that point I probably would have felt defeated. But that’s why not all of us qualify as superheroes.
She knocked on another door, and the young man who answered told Rea that he was a dog person.
“Then he paused and said, ‘Now that I think about it, my dogs chased a cat and kitten out of my yard and up a tree. You can look behind my garage. I bet you’ll find kittens.”
Spoiler alert: He won that bet.
“It wasn’t easy to get to – I had to walk up an adjacent street and through some woods to get to the area. In 20 years of cat rescuing it was the first time I had been on an adventure like this,” Rea says.
No stranger to feral cat rescue, Rea owns all sorts of useful gadgets, including a trail cam and humane traps. In fact, the day she came upon the injured mama kitty, she was on her way to a friend’s house to pick up her traps, which her friend had borrowed to rescue another homeless mom and kitten group. To say that Rea was the right person to be in the right place at the right time is not a stretch.
“I don’t’ usually drive that route. Over the past 20 years it does seem like the universe conspires sometimes, and the fact that I found the kittens, to me, is kind of amazing. I was just hoping and praying I’d find them, but didn’t expect to be successful.”
She immediately set up the trail cam and placed some food out. Sure enough, within a few days she had trapped three little kittens – one tiger kitty and two black – which she continues to foster. All of them are healthy. She’s working on socializing them and figures they will be ready for adoption through the shelter in a few more weeks.
“More times than not, kittens won’t survive for long in a situation like this. Somehow by the grace of God I was able to find them. Even if they did survive, it’s a rough life on the streets. Maybe some people move away and leave their pets behind based on the misconception that if they take them to a shelter they will be put to sleep. But that’s not what happens here,” says Rea.
She explains that The Animal Rescue League of NH will accept pet surrenders, while the work of the Manchester Animal Shelter is more focused on education, advocacy, spaying and neutering strays.
Rea says she and her husband have no children, so rescuing and fostering strays fulfills her maternal instinct, second only to her animal instinct.
“The stray population in Manchester is just awful. I can’t turn the other cheek, especially when it comes to situations like this. The mom being hit by car – she didn’t ask to be put out there. So I do what I can. I do a ton of feeding and trapping of stray cats and offer advice to those missing cats, and I’m a strong advocate for spaying and neutering,” says Rea.
I know what some of you are thinking. In a world where children go hungry or homeless or abused, where human need is amplified by the people we pass daily, holding cardboard signs at corners or huddled along Elm Street in front of shuttered businesses, why do people like Gilman and Rea put so much energy into saving animals?
It’s the question I posed to Gilman, after hearing her story.
“I completely agree with you,” she says. “But I also believe the way people treat animals is a reflection on how they treat human beings. It makes it hard to be compassionate for one another if we can’t feel compassion for animals that are helpless. They can’t do much for themselves. Much like children or people with disabilities, we have animals at the shelter who are abused and mistreated and, through the efforts of volunteers, get to go to homes where they learn to love, and be loved.”
She told me that animals don’t get enough credit, in her estimation. They make us smile and give unconditional love to any human who will take a chance on them.
“To let an animal suffer would be a poor reflection on humanity,” Gilman says.
Carol Robidoux is publisher and editor of ManchesterInkLink.com.