Kathy Zozula with her dog

Kathy Zozula with her dog

A Christmas miracle as cat returns to his forever family

Kathy Zozula shares the miraculous story of her beloved cat Neko's return home after going missing for 14 months

Kathy Zozula

Special to The Morning Star

When I brought home a new cat, I was asked what I would do if my other cat one day returned. With tears in my eyes, I answered honestly, “She’s gone. Only a miracle could bring her back. But if that miracle ever did happen, we would be a two-cat family. And I would be the happiest person on the face of this earth.” Christmas arrived early this year – my miracle is curled up on the couch, purring.

Our story began more than a year ago with a single phone call. Local photographer and friend Brenda Hala wondered if I was busy that Sunday. She had volunteered to take promotional photographs for the Vernon SPCA and could use an extra “critter wrangler.” I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a few hours than hanging out with good friends, surrounded by animals. But I told Brenda – and myself – “Just remember, I am NOT coming home with a cat!”

After spending some time with my horse, I dropped my dog Emma off at Wiggle Waggle Pet Hotel for the day and met Brenda and her mom Gertie at the SPCA. We began with the dogs — all so friendly and trusting, I couldn’t help but wonder how they had ended up homeless. Then we moved on to the kittens; it was like being in a room full of furry little ping-pong balls hanging off the backdrop and bouncing off the walls! Still laughing, we finished with the adult cats. And then I held Frisbee. She snuggled against me and brushed her head under my chin and gazed back at me with those amazing green eyes. I was toast.

It didn’t take Brenda long to get me to admit that yes, there was one cat that I had felt a special connection to. After that it was only a matter of time before I called the SPCA, visited Frisbee several times and at last brought her home. Along with her new home, Frisbee was given a new name. The name given her by the SPCA was cute, but this cat was so much more than cute. From the start, I felt there was such depth and wisdom to her. Searching the Internet for ideas, I discovered a beautiful Japanese legend, “Maneki Neko” or “The Beckoning Cat.” Given her jade green eyes and the way I had been instantly drawn to her, she became my “Maneki Neko,” or Neko for short.

In the days and weeks that followed, I delighted in getting to know this little cat. I found it hard to believe that a former stray had impeccable house manners. She was a little timid, but thrived on companionship and as long as I let her set the parameters, she stayed close by. I smiled at the way she always announced herself when she entered a room. But more than anything, I was amazed at how quickly a cat and a dog became fast friends. I loved how she would rub against Emma’s chest and reach up to brush her face under Emma’s chin. Emma adored her; our little family seemed complete.

I was thrilled when Frisbee’s portrait was selected for one of the SPCA banners, and I loved the caption: “Frisbee found her forever home with a loving guardian…”

Forever sounded perfect. Neko wasn’t more than three years old, so I was already imagining the next 17 or 18 years with her. I never dreamed that our forever would end so abruptly just one short month later.

A friend had kindly offered to kitty sit for me one weekend. I put Neko into her crate and drove the 20 km to my friend’s farm. I felt as upset as Neko and Emma at being separated, but I reassured them that this was only for two days. That was the last time we saw Neko.

Somehow, just hours before we were to take her home, she managed to slip unseen out of the house. We spent the day searching the various out-buildings, surrounding fields, and finally the immediate neighbourhood. As night approached, the reality hit that Neko was in real danger.

The next morning I faced the possibility that Neko might be trying to get back home on her own. The thought was terrifying as that journey led through 20 km of forest and fields filled with coyotes and other predators. Neko had been a stray, so she was a survivor. But how useful were the “street smarts” of a city cat when it came to surviving in a rural environment? It was urgent that I find her as soon as possible.

I received so much encouragement and help from friends. Together, we phoned numerous agencies, volunteer organizations and individuals involved in finding strays; we posted flyers throughout the area; notified the media; searched the surrounding area. As the days passed, my search expanded north, along a straight line home. Daily I stopped at farms along the route, asking permission to look around each property. I explained that I had brought my own dog, Emma, because she would pick up the scent if Neko had recently passed that way. I knew it was an imposition and was prepared to be turned away. Instead, everywhere I stopped people were sympathetic, many offered to put their own dogs into the house while I searched, and several even offered to walk with me and point out some spots where a cat might find shelter.

Weeks passed without a single lead. There were no numbers left to call, nowhere else to look and winter was approaching. As my hope faded, I was touched by acts of kindness by others, total strangers who were moved by Neko’s story. It seemed there were a lot of people praying for her safe return. One lady responded by making a donation to the SPCA; another phoned the number on the flyer just to ask whether Neko had been found; a friend told a friend whose mother lived in Vernon but drove to Armstrong to look for a cat she had never met. Hearing these stories eased the pain of what now seemed an inevitable end.

Months passed, and I finally ran out of hope.  I had to accept the reality that Neko was gone. The worst was knowing that in her final moments I wasn’t there for her. She must have felt abandoned, frightened, hurt and alone. I knew that I should take down all those flyers I had posted, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Emma grieved as much as I did, but the time came to bring another cat into our home. The house was just too quiet and empty without one. As I readied the house for a second Christmas without Neko, our new cat Barbie began settling in. On the evening of Dec. 4, I received a message from the Kelowna SPCA: they had a question for me and would I please return their call. Our conversation the next morning seemed to confirm that the SPCA was simply conducting a routine follow-up on lost pet reports. “Had I adopted a cat from the SPCA? Did I happen to lose her?” But then the astonishing statement — a lady living in Enderby had found a cat bearing the same tattoo! This had to be a mistake!

Marilyn Wittner called me after work. I e-mailed her a photo of Neko and Marilyn replied, “If it isn’t her, it’s her twin.” Miraculously, 14 months after her disappearance, I received the news I had prayed for. Neko was alive and well, living at a home some 30 km from where she had last been seen. Marilyn had been caring for her since she first appeared at her home in early November, but another month passed before the cat trusted her enough to be handled. That was when Marilyn first saw the tattoo. She had two cats of her own, but hadn’t hesitated to offer a home to a stray she called Rusty. Seeing the tattoo, her first thoughts were how wonderful it would be if Neko already had a family that loved her and if they could be re-united in time for Christmas.

I didn’t really believe this miracle had happened until I saw Neko for myself. The instant I brought her in the house, she remembered home. She purred; she lay down and did her happy little flip-flops on the kitchen floor; she rubbed against the furniture. But best of all, she rubbed against Emma’s chest and reached up to brush her face under Emma’s chin. Emma is ecstatic. Neko and her new sister Barbie are getting acquainted and I know that they too will be friends before long.

Neko has always been a “talker” but vocalizes more than ever now. It seems she is trying to tell me all about the adventures she had since we last saw each other. I wonder how she managed to survive, how she came to be in Enderby, and how many other people might have helped a little stray tabby along the way?

We are grateful to each and every person who showed us kindness through prayers, thoughts, words or actions. God bless you all, and merry Christmas!