My fuzzy Valentine: Love stories from former shelter pets and their adopters

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Lola Hawkins + Bellatrix

Lola and her kitten, Bellatrix. — photo by Zak Nuemann

At 10 years old, Lola Hawkins has already experienced love at first sight. She was browsing the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center website this November when she came upon a tan and black tabby kitten with a half-pink, half-black nose.

“I saw her picture online and I said, ‘That’s the one. I need her,” the self-described “crazy cat lady” said. “I knew she would be my perfect match.”

Lola’s mom Susan issued her daughter a challenge: finish an egg roll during one of their dinners at Thai Spice, and she could adopt the cat of her dreams.

“But I could only eat half,” Lola lamented. “I didn’t finish it in time, so I spent the night crying and crying. But we went to the shelter anyway to meet her, and I found out after we left that my mom had put in an application.”

Later that week, they took the new kitten home to North Liberty. Lola called her Bellatrix after the vicious and cunning Harry Potter villain.

“I was going to name her Ginny Weasley, but look at her.” Lola flicks a feather toy through the air, and Bellatrix springs to claw after it. “Does she look like a Ginny?”

Photo by Zak Neumann

Despite the kitten’s frisky nature, Lola said she initially bonded with Bellatrix over their mutual shyness. It wasn’t long before they became “best friends forever,” Lola said. She even lets Bellatrix plant kisses directly on her mouth. “It feels weird to have her sandpapery tongue on my lips. But it’s love.”

Caring for cats is nothing new to Lola, an active participant in the Iowa City Animal Center’s Read to the Paw program. The Van Allen Elementary student visits the shelter every Thursday to plop on a donated dog bed in one of the cat rooms and read Shel Silverstein, J.K. Rowling and Roald Dahl books to the residents. Hearing human voices works to calm and socialize shelter animals.

“They always open up to me,” Lola said. “I will hold the books up to the glass wall so they can see the pictures. Sometimes I feel like they’re laughing at the jokes.”

Lola plans to keep up with Read to the Paw until she’s old enough to be a full volunteer at 14. Someday, she wants to adopt an all-black cat named Sirius — “hopefully Bellatrix doesn’t kill him!” — and open a cat rescue. Or be an architect. For now, she’s enjoying life as a cat mom.

“Bellatrix definitely is my cutie patootie,” Lola said. “This is her forever home and I want her to love it forever.”

Tammy Bloomhuff + Wally

Muscatine resident Tammy Bloomhuff and Wallace — photo by Zak Neumann

On any given day, Tammy Bloomhuff can be found walking with more than 400 pounds worth of dogs.

“I’ve been knocked down, dragged, had my eyes clawed,” Bloomhuff said. “It happens with big dogs.”

Bloomhuff is currently mother to Stella, a part-Pyrenees Mountain dog whose thick white coat makes even single-digit temperatures comfortable; bull mastiff/lab mix Maybelle, nicknamed “Lump the Destroyer”; and the newest super-sized rescue, Wallace, nicknamed Wally.

Bloomhuff has rescued dogs and cats from California to Iowa — from shelters, a Dollar General parking lot or families dropping them off at her Muscatine home.

“It just kind of snowballed,” she said. “People know you’re a sucker and they’ll bring them by. You start seeing the need. When you hear some of the reasons people give them up — they shed, they’re not housebroken, he loves me too much — that’s probably the craziest one I’ve heard. It’s just common sense: if you don’t want him, don’t take him home.”

Wally, called Parsons during his stay at the Iowa City Animal Center, is a yellow lab mix with glowing yellow-green eyes. He and several other dogs were seized from a farm outside of Iowa City in March 2017, where they were kept on short outdoor leashes and had little to no interaction with humans. Bloomhuff adopted Wally in May 2017.

Photo by Zak Neumann

“The first time I brought him home he hid in the cupboard. Everything scared him,” she said.

Today, Wally loves to romp with his canine siblings in the field behind their house, go for a swim or take a ride in the tailgate of Bloomhuff’s truck. He’s still shy in public, but clings to his adopter’s side.

“He’s really smart; it’s a little scary,” Bloomhuff said.

When she’s not caring for her own pets, Bloomhuff works to liberate puppy mills with the organization Iowa Voters for Companion Animals Against Puppy Mills. Nine Iowa puppy dealers were named in the Humane Society’s 2017 “Horrible Hundred,” an annual report of the most problematic dog breeding and selling facilities in the U.S. Bloomhuff said she and other activists have been working tirelessly to shut down even one mill.

“You can’t get anywhere,” she said. “But you just have to keep trying. It’s time.”

Though she works harder than the average pet owner, Bloomhuff sees no downsides to pet ownership — save one.

“The only bad thing is they don’t outlive ya,” she said, rubbing Wally’s head.

Doug Ongie + Seymour and Peabody

Doug Ongie and Seymour in their Iowa City home. — photo Frankie Schneckloth

In a crisply restored, 1920s house on Governor Street, a white and ginger cat named Seymour rests at the top of a cat tower next to a potted avocado tree. Hearing a crinkle from his treat bag, Seymour flings himself from the tower, sending it wobbling. Doug Ongie tosses treats into the kitchen and dining room, one by one. Seymour knows this game — he darts between rooms before the next treat is tossed.

“He’s just a good cat,” Doug says simply. “He’s part of the family.”

Seymour was a former Solon farm cat, then Iowa City Animal Center resident. Doug and his wife Sheila went to the shelter in 2012 with the intention to adopt a kitten, “but they were so spastic,” Doug said. “I looked over and saw Seymour. He had his paw up on the cage, and he wasn’t getting as much attention as the others. We thought we could give that to him.”

The Ongies kept Seymour’s shelter name. Doug is now fully familiar with his quirks, such as a tendency to run to the door when he or Sheila gets home and flop over for a belly rub, like a dog.

Peabody. — photo by Frankie Schneckloth

“He’s a funny cat. He’s very earnest,” Doug said. “He’ll move his tail when I’m talking to him.”

Seymour has a soft spot for Doug as well: He tends to curl up with Doug at night, while Peabody prefers Sheila.

Peabody was once a stray cat in the Ongies’ neighborhood, his long brown hair full of matts. The couple gave him shelter one night during a thunderstorm, and he’s been their cat ever since. It wasn’t exactly “happily ever after” — health problems had the Ongies rushing Peabody to the emergency room and syringe-feeding the cat five to seven times a day for months. Years later, Doug said Peabody’s happy and healthy.

“He doesn’t know how to meow properly,” Doug noted. “He just goes mmmm.”

The Ongies’ decision to adopt cats was precipitated by a trip to Monterrey, where they stayed in an AirBnB housing a three-legged dog named Zeus.

“Strangely, after that we came home wanting a pet,” Doug said. “We’re cat people, though. It fits our personality best.”

Kenzie Gann + Duncan

Kenzie Gann with her dog Duncan at the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids. — photo by Zak Neumann

On April 18, 2015, Kenzie Gann’s 9-year-old cavalier king Spaniel, Tobi, suddenly and tragically passed away.

“What happened next was a fast downward spiral of my mental health,” said Gann, a Cedar Rapids resident. “I was diagnosed as traumatized.”

Not long after, a coworker at Lucky Pawz, the dog daycare at which Gann worked, tentatively recommended she meet an Iowa City Animal Center dog. It was an Australian shepherd mix named Calgary, who Gann would later call Duncan.

“He sat so nicely and put his head down when I pet him. I played with him that day and two more times before pulling the trigger,” Gann said. “Fate would have it that exactly three months after losing Tobi, Duncan would come home with me. It gives me chills to this day to think about.”

Gann said it was clear Duncan had experienced abuse and neglect in his past. He trusted her, but would hide from strangers, flee from other dogs and cower at loud noises. When Gann was out, Duncan would confine himself to his kennel so as to avoid her roommates.

Photo by Zak Neumann

That is, until Gann started taking the pup to work with her at Lucky Pawz.

“He went from screaming and running when a dog wanted to play to being the running pup who splashed in pools and jumped onto the playground,” Gann said. “He needed to trust that he was safe around people, which means not forcing them on him. Once he knows you, he’s the biggest dog I’ve ever met who actually likes being held.”

“I’m not sure why he latched onto me so fast — we laugh that I’m his emotional support human.”

Gann said she owes her happiness to the Iowa City Animal Center — and the second love of her life.

“[I’m] a girl who saved a pup who really saved her.”

Emma McClatchey is celebrating Valentine’s Day with her love, a former shelter cat named Ludwig. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 236.

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