Johnson City cat with cleft palate making name for himself

Becky Campbell • Dec 2, 2013 at 8:20 AM

When Dr. Cindy Chambers met a small, malnourished 10-week-old kitten a little more than a year ago, she didn’t think twice about taking it in to nurse him back to health.It was almost fitting, actually. You see, the kitten — now named Lazarus — had a disability, and Chambers’ expertise is in special education. In other words, she recognized the specialized attention Lazarus needed, his strong will to survive and his ability to help others look past what some might see as a disfigurement.Lazarus was born with a cleft palate that left him without a nose and upper lip, but that didn’t have any effect on his survivability, Chambers discovered. And it didn’t have any effect on his ability to tug at the heartstrings of thousands of fans who now follow his every adventure.Chambers hopes that following will help Lazarus win a two-page photo spread in Modern Cat magazine. She entered him in the contest earlier this month and hopes everyone will vote for him daily until voting is over.Because she sees Lazarus as an inspiration, Chambers, who teaches special education for educators at East Tennessee State University, wants to keep telling his story. That’s how she came across the Modern Cat contest.“I was looking on the Internet for ways to share Laz’s story and to communicate the importance, to share the value” of an animal with a disability, she said.“I see something like that as another opportunity to share Lazarus’ story in hoping it hits a wider audience, so people could see the value behind providing homes for animals, whether they’re animals with or without disabilities.”Lazarus has had a long journey over the past 15 months, but if Chambers hadn’t been willing to help in the beginning, the fun-loving cat wouldn’t be here, she said.She chose the name Lazarus “because he had a second chance at life. If he hadn’t been rescued when he was, I can’t say he would have survived much longer with the infection he had and the malnourishment.“I have a background in disability, but I’ve dabbled in animal rescue as well,” Chambers said. A student found Lazarus and called Chambers.“When I met him I thought he was the cutest thing I’d ever seen, but knew he was very sick and needed help.”Chambers got immediate medical attention for Lazarus to address his malnutrition and a deep infection in his nasal passages. She also reached out to the community, not only to tell Lazarus’ story, but to also seek advice from others who have disabled pets.“I started with vets immediately, to start attending to his medical needs, and was really blessed by the community coming together to see that aspect of his care was taken care of,” she said.“It’s been a really neat process because there are so many cats and animals that are forming this really unique community through social media. I think the power behind telling a story like Laz’s is you really begin to see these cats and dogs and animals as an integral part of people’s families and people’s lives,” she said.“Just like we don’t look at a person with a disability having a disability as the primary thing, we look at them as people with a personality and people loving them. We look at these animals as having their own unique personal and places to contribute in people’s lives,” she said.And it turns out that the cleft palate was the least of Laz’s problems. The primary issue he had was infection, Chambers said.“He was a survivor. He was 10 weeks old with a cleft palate and malnourished. It was the lack of care that was a challenge to him. Somehow he found a way to nurse; somehow he found a way to survive. It’s really amazing what he must have inside of him to say, ‘I want to live,’ ” Chambers said. Early in his recovery, Lazarus had surgery to clean out the infection. Chambers initially thought the cleft palate would need repair, but that’s not the case.“He actually did have surgery to remove infection, which was his major health issue. Anything else, according to his soft tissue surgeon, would be cosmetic,” Chambers said.“Laz is, in my opinion, a fun loving, very sweet and shy cat that happens to have a cleft palate. I don’t look at him as a cat without a nose.”When people meet Lazarus the first time, the lack of an upper lip and nose is obvious. But it’s also clear pretty quickly that there’s so much more to him.“Once they get to know him, they see he is more than a cat with special needs. For me, it mirrors the work I do in the disability community,” Chambers said. “When I meet someone with a disability I see someone with strengths and abilities. Now I’ve found a home in the animal community where I want to show people that these animals with disability are also worthy of being loved.”Lazarus still has health issues, particularly respiratory infections.“That would be whether he had a full repair or not. That’s our understanding. About every four months or so, he goes on antibiotics. Once he does that, he tends to be fine,” Chambers said.He’s found his niche in Chambers’ family of three other cats and several dogs, as well.Laz’ siblings “never saw Laz as having a disability. Initially they saw him as an annoying kitten who wouldn’t leave them alone. Now, he’s a little calmer. They all snuggle up together, they eat together, they play with the same toys; they love each other unconditionally,” Chambers said.Lazarus has already had more attention than Chambers could have ever dreamed of. And it started as a Facebook page named Care for Lazarus.Chambers said that Debbie Gibson, the ’80s singer, has a video site of inspirational stories and that group caught wind of Lazarus’ story and wanted to do a video.“Once that was posted, and after the Johnson City Press article, it ended up in newspapers I can’t even read the language. I never anticipated anything like this when I created Lazarus’ Facebook site.I set up that Facebook site like any new parent — I guess in this case with an animal with a disability — looking for answers I didn’t have. It’s been amazing how many people who just love Laz and say he inspires them.”Chambers said she often hears from parents who have children with cleft palates.“They don’t feel alone. I never anticipated Laz would have that impact on an online community.”Chambers said she and Lazarus share a special bond, although she loves her other three cats unconditionally as well.“For Laz, I am totally his world. We have a very special relationship and it doesn’t matter where we are or what we are doing, he wants to be with his mama. I have four cats. Each of the cats has their own unique personality. Lazarus is the cat who wants to sit in your lap and purr. Moses is the one who wants to greet you, rub your leg and then runs to the food bowl. Abraham is the cat who wants to sleep with you, and when you’re awake, he’s done. Char is the cat that talks a lot,” she said.But Lazarus’ life isn’t just about lap-sitting and purring.“I want people to see both Laz and people with diabilities as living beings who can have great potential if given the opportunity,” Chambers said.To help Lazarus win the photo contest, go to http://moderncat.com/starcat/entry/lazarus, or you can find a link on his Facebook page, Care for Lazarus.

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