They’ve got faces to melt even a cat-averse heart.
There’s Pancake, with his orange Creamsicle markings and olive eyes. Or BW, with a black and white harlequin mask of a face, a bubblegum pink nose and pure white paws. And then there is Teddy, a cuddle toy of soft white fluff and pale blue eyes.
These are the current pin ups for SNAP Cats, a sanctuary and adoption service for “special needs” felines otherwise doomed to death or a lifetime in a shelter by disabilities that range from cleft palate and blindness to mere old age.
From their close-ups on social media, many of them look like normal cats. It’s only when you see them determinedly try to walk with a wobbly gate or scoot around on two legs that you can see what a difficult hand fate dealt them.
But SNAP Cats founder and Executive Director Darryl Roberts finds that, with a few adaptations and an open mind, these endearing animals can live happy lives and make great pets when paired with the right caretakers.
The 52-year-old cat champion takes in special-needs felines from animal shelters, vets and other sources, brings them back to health if necessary and places them in foster care until he can find them permanent homes. SNAP stands for Special Needs are Precious.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for special-needs anything, humans and animals,” Roberts said. “They don’t feel sorry for themselves. They don’t know any different. But with cats, they’re the first ones to be put down because a lot of shelters aren’t equipped to handle them.”
He incorporated the nonprofit two years ago after studying to be a veterinary technician and working two years at the troubled Healdsburg Animal Shelter, which later was forced to close. During his time there, he developed a fondness for the less-than-perfect felines that showed up at the shelter.
Roberts was particularly captivated by a kitten with cerebellar hypoplasia, a malady shared by baby cats that are born with underdeveloped cerebellums. This can happen if the mother cat developed the feline panleukopenia virus or got a distemper shot while pregnant. The common result is an impaired gait. Roberts and other fans call them “wobbly cats.”
At the moment, he has several moderately impaired wobbly cats, rescued from a cat hoarder in Southern California and recently flown to Santa Rosa by Pilots n Paws, a network of volunteer pilots and plane owners who transport pets in need.
“It’s kind of like us walking on a rocky boat,” he said while coaxing out from hiding a shy calico called Pom Pom. “CH cats aren’t in any pain. They won’t get any better, but they won’t get any worse. And they can live long and healthy lives.”
Over the past two years, Roberts has found adoptive homes for 115 special needs cats. He now has 13 cats in 12 different foster homes, and two with terminal conditions that are in “fospice” — a kitten named Wuzzy with a fatal heart defect and a 10-year-old cat with kidney failure. He has another 37 he’s trying to find homes for.
If a cat is suffering from a treatable condition, Roberts works with several area vets who assist with low-fee surgeries, including Dr. Russ Gurevitch of Petaluma and Dr. Ben Baldwin in Healdsburg, for whom Roberts works part time as a vet tech.