SNAP Cats offers help for special-needs felines
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.
Dr. Gurevitch has done three surgeries to repair the congenital cleft palate of a semi-feral cat named Teddy. Another cat named Simon born without eyelids has had several surgeries to remove fur growing into his eyes.
Roberts will do what he can to help any cat still capable of enjoying life. Living with him now is Squeak, a rescue cat born with asymmetrical legs and neurological damage in her lower spine.
“When we started working with her in therapy, she could hardly move her back legs. Now she has about 75 percent movement. She can stand on them. She can jump on them. But she’ll never walk on them, and she’s incontinent.”
Squeak wears Fancy Pants, a specially designed diaper in dapper colors and prints for cats, complete with a tail opening and changeable liners. Roberts is working with the woman who makes them to develop a special line for SNAP Cats called Snap Wraps, which Roberts will market along with concealing wear like dresses and cat jeans.
Roberts’ main source of income is the $950 a month he takes in through some 85 donation boxes in retail locations around the county, including Copperfields Books, bike shops, card shops and Healdsburg’s Oakville Grocery. All are mapped at snapcats.org.
He works out of small quarters above a winery tasting room outside Healdsburg while searching for larger, more permanent home, with promised support from anonymous benefactors. He also receives donated food, supplies and medicine, and said that if he really needs something, he asks his 500 Facebook followers. Inevitably, someone comes through.
“When Teddy needed surgery, I put it out there and two women who happened to be doing a fundraiser online but hadn’t decided where to donate the money, decided we should have it,” he said.
Right now, Roberts is living on occasional wine reviews and the last of his savings from Wine X, a hip wine magazine he launched in the ’90s to appeal to young wine drinkers. After many robust years, it now lives in diminished form online only and Roberts, who still is the primary stockholder, is no longer involved in its day-to-day management.
“He’s a really nice man and obviously passionate about cats,” said Mickey Zeldes, manager of the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter, which has placed a number of animals with SNAP Cats.
“I know he’s looking forward to having more space and being able to help more animals. The sad part is no matter how big he builds, there will always be more.”
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmccon.
Features, The Press Democrat
Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.