An alley cat finds holy rescue squad

Thursday, April 23, 1998

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The cat is named Vincent van Gogh because of his ears. The vet says he'll probably lose them.

Frostbite.

Vincent -- Vinnie to his friends -- used to prowl an alley in Over-the-Rhine with a bunch of other cats. They were starving, skinny, sickly, wild. Toni Cashnelli, who works for the Franciscan Friars on Vine Street, started catching them.

"I figured I could at least take them to a vet, have them neutered and spayed." A worthy goal, considering that the Doris Day Animal League estimates that one cat and her unaltered offspring could produce 420,000 cats in seven years.

After they were doctored and fed, Toni planned to let them loose again, maybe a little better able to fend for themselves. She's been reading a lot about feral cats. Vinnie must not have read the same books. Or, more probably, he was never wild.

A distinguished nose

He doesn't look wild. Bony still, he asks politely to be petted. Toni scratches his head, careful of his ragged ears. The tips, which have been frozen, probably will drop off eventually.

He flops on his side, then rolls over to have his stomach rubbed. "He has a wonderful nose, don't you think?" Toni says. It looks ordinary to me, pinkish and broad. She calls it leonine. I think comparing this poor little waif to a lion is a stretch.

But Toni would like to find a home for him. She can't put him back out on the streets. Although he's only about a year old, he will surely die. For one thing, she believes he was a house cat. "Does he look wild?"

Well, no, he doesn't. He walks over and trains his yellow eyes on me. Blinks once. Twice. Then, with great dignity, gently rubs against my outstretched fingers. Maybe that nose is a little leonine, now that I see it up close. And I am picturing the way he must have looked when somebody first got him, a little gray-striped ball of fluff. Then maybe he got gangly and started acting like an adolescent, and somebody just tossed him out. "Like garbage," Toni says indignantly. He had no more idea of how to forage for his own food or protect himself against the real wild cats than any of the rest of us would if we'd been thrown suddenly on the street. In an alley.

Worse, he was bitten or scratched by a cat with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), the equivalent of AIDS for cats.

So Toni Cashnelli is dreaming, in my opinion. She is hoping that somebody out there would be willing to adopt an undistinguished alley cat (notwithstanding his aristocratic nose) who is missing his ears and is living with a death sentence.

Remembering St. Francis

"You can't catch FIV from a cat," she says. Nor can a dog or horse or gerbil or any other animal besides a cat. The only way it spreads is through blood -- bites or transfusions. Prognosis is uncertain. With proper care, an infected cat could live a year. Or 10 years. "Vinnie could live a long, happy life," Toni says. "He just wants to be in somebody's home. Being loved."

Dreaming. She's dreaming.

Or maybe it's faith. She would certainly be in the right place for that, the Province of St. John the Baptist, a holy fixture of Over-the-Rhine since 1844. Friars from this beautiful old building at Vine and Liberty streets went on to Louisville, Detroit and New Orleans. Missionaries traveled to New Mexico, Arizona and China. They leave this serene place to help with hospices, schools, hospitals. They serve the homeless, the hungry and people with AIDS.

The Franciscan Friars, of course, were founded by St. Francis of Assisi. Their mission includes "reverence for every creature." And I hope the nice men I met at the province won't think me irreverent when I say that they remind me of a cheery, brown-robed rescue squad, poised to help anybody who needs them.

Even a sick little cat.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

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