Blind cat captures hearts, leaves behind smiles

Tammy Grubb
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Carrboro, N.C. — – Clients of the Charles House at Winmore sat a little straighter, hands folded in their laps and some smiling broadly, as Toby the Silver Tiger walked in the room.

“To-by! Toby the Tiger,” one woman sang, clapping her hands in time.

The black and silver-striped cat sniffed out his surroundings, rubbing against shoes and chair legs. He stopped, turning his head to listen with each new sound.

“Cats. They’re just so clever,” said Fred Heinzel, who visits Charles House every day. He’s got two black cats — Ben and Jerry — at home who love to chase each other. It’s nice when Toby stops by the Charles House, he said.

The cat, now 10 months old, has found a forever family with Charlene Hayes and a growing career as a companion for older adults with dementia and other health issues. His “play dates” regularly take him to Charles House and other senior communities.

Toby is “curious and affectionate,” family friend Carla Shuford said. “It’s the perfect combination for a therapy cat.”

He’s also blind.

Shuford connected Hayes, a therapy-dog foster parent and former animal clinic employee, with Toby last year after learning that the then-12 week old cat was available for adoption from the Independent Animal Rescue group.

The family had to act fast, Hayes said. They picked up Toby on Saturday and, by Sunday, were packed into a car with three cats for the 33-hour drive west to their summer home in Mexico. Hayes’s other cats, Rikki Tikki Tavi, 8, and Alli Bali G, 15, also are blind.

Toby’s eyes were underdeveloped, causing his eyelids and lashes to turn under. He had surgery in December to close them, reducing the chance of irritation and infection, Hayes said.

Blind cats don’t know they’re blind, so life for Toby is fairly typical, she said.

Navigating a new space is simple once Toby learns the layout, she said. He’s learned to use the stairs — he backs down like a toddler, she said — and jump between objects and to the floor. He wears a leash outside.

She’s teaching residents to go “fishing” for Toby by snapping ribbons in the air and pulling them across the floor.

“It’s all about entertainment for them, but it’s also for them to have the hands-on (experience), touching the fur,” she said. “If he hasn’t made his rounds, before we leave, I pick him up and make sure everybody has some fur time.”