Our work with the disabled may apply exclusively to humans but that doesn’t me we don’t recognize assistance from the animal kingdom. In fact, we welcome it! Advocacy is the public support of a particular cause. Nothing holds the public’s attention like an animal story, especially when that animal is Lazarus, a rescue cat with a cleft palate and more than 35,000 Facebook fans.
Of course, this one-of-a-kind feline owes his moniker to the Lazarus of Biblical fame, whose name tends to be associated with just about every resurrection metaphor or comeback story there is. He was only 10 weeks old when rescued from the streets of Johnson City, Tennessee. When an East Tennessee State University student found the tiny survivor, he was flea infested with exposed bone on the roof of his mouth, no upper lip and no nose. Fearing the worst, the student sought assistance from Cindy Chambers, a special education professor and animal lover. Chambers feared that a vet would take one look at the malnourished, infected kitten and recommend that he be put down. One supply of antibiotics later, Lazarus began to earn his name, growing soft tissue in his mouth and rapidly gaining weight.
It was a miracle the cat survived. So why wasn’t Chambers content to simply play with and enjoy the company of her new, special companion? For one, care for that cleft palate led to some exorbitant veterinary bills. The ETSU professor started a Facebook page with the hope of finding supporters. What she found was 12,000 ‘Friends of Lazarus’, a community that has nearly tripled in size since its inception. Inevitably, members of this community included little boys and girls with cleft palates whose predisposition to psychosocial issues and feelings of loneliness were alleviated by the very sight of their furry friend. Ultimately, one does not have to have a cleft palate, or be a child, to be touched by Lazarus. It is tough to regard an animal so blissfully unaware of his appearance and still harbor sadness or resentment over not fitting in.
The most special story to spin out of Friends of Lazarus has been an internship program set up by Professor Chambers at the Washington County/Johnson City Animal Shelter. With some help from the Humane Society of Washington County, interns with special needs are gaining real world experience and socialization by working with animals. They brush the animals and walk with them. They also do laundry, wash windows and clean cages. Overseen by ETSU social work student David Adzrago, these young people are building their resumes and learning independence.
We are always striving to seek out allies and resources, in all shapes and sizes. A superficial glance at Lazarus, the cat with the cleft palate, may not get him added to the list, but we are not prone to such cursory inspections. Apparently, our feelings upon gazing at Lazarus are shared by tens of thousands of people. The fact that any of those admirers have been inspired to overcome adversity is a beautiful bonus.