Burt gets his head scratched with a back scratcher at the HART Adoption Center & Shelter For Cats in Cumberland. The back scratcher helps socialize the cat, giving him human interaction while protecting the person petting him from being scratched. Over time, the wooden tool is replaced with human touch. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

WILTON — For months, the big, bedraggled cat would not be trapped.

His ears were all but gone, gnawed away by painful frostbite. His eyes were rimmed red and raw. His nose was dotted with cuts and scars, some of them fresh from recent fights. He liked to hang around Jeff Harmon’s porch, warming himself in a rare winter sunny spot or rolling on a soft old sweater Harmon left out on a chair for him. Sometimes he stood in front of the large window and peered inside, only to flee if anyone got too close to him.

The stray cat, then nicknamed Big Hurt, peers inside Jeff Harmon’s Wilton home this winter. Jeff Harmon

The cat broke Harmon’s heart.

“He was obviously in really rough shape. He needed help,” said Harmon, who has three cats of his own, fosters pregnant cats for the local shelter and has trapped a number of strays over two years at his Wilton home. “I hated to see him out there in the cold and wet.”

On Facebook, Harmon began referring to him as The Big Hurt Cat. Then just Big Hurt. As the winter wore on, a growing number of friends and friends-of-friends followed along online as Harmon chronicled his attempts to catch Big Hurt with sardines, with canned food, with a borrowed live trap that could spring closed automatically.

When all else failed, Harmon set up a manual trap that looked like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. He ran the string under his front door, settled by the window and waited. For weeks.

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On March 24, Big Hurt finally walked into the trap.

“I got him!!! I got him!!!” Harmon wrote on Facebook, accompanied by a video of the newly captured cat. “Big Hurt is officially no longer a stray. I am literally shaking right now. …”

Jeff Harmon called him The Big Hurt Cat online. Soon that became just Big Hurt. Jeff Harmon

Social media went wild. Maine rescue groups went wild.

The cat, not so much.

“He was really calm about it. Most cats, once the trap springs, they just freak out and start throwing themselves at the sides of it trying to get out,” Harmon said.

“He just kind of sat there and looked around and went, ‘Well, the hell with it. I’m trapped, I might as well eat the sardines.'”

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No one knows where Big Hurt came from or how long he’s been a stray. One person said she’s been seeing him around the area for seven or eight years. One vet put his age at 9-plus years.

With three cats already and limited income due to a disability, Harmon could not keep Big Hurt. The cat clearly needed medical help, and no one knew then whether he was feral or might ever adapt to life with people.

The cat eats some dry food Jeff Harmon put out at his Wilton home. Jeff Harmon

The Franklin County Animal Shelter in Farmington took him in, neutered him and began treating his injuries, including broken teeth, severely damaged ears and eyes so swollen and infected that Harmon thought Big Hurt might be blind. But the shelter couldn’t keep him long term.

The Cat Coalition of Western Maine, which helped supply Harmon with traps and cat food, was going to take Big Hurt. But when his blood tests came back positive for feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, coalition President Stephanie Mains realized her home, which housed 40 other cats, wouldn’t be the best place for him. He needed to be someplace that cared for FIV-positive cats and could give him more attention.

He deserved a home.

“He definitely has my heart,” Mains said. “He’s one of the worst-off cats (I’ve seen) and I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years.”

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The cat, then known as Big Hurt, sleeps after being captured. Cat Coalition of Western Maine

She called HART, a Cumberland cat shelter that has cared for FIV-positive, injured and fearful cats. Executive Director Lisa Smith agreed to take him.

At HART, Big Hurt’s social media star continued to rise. Within days of his arrival, thousands of people checked out a short video of him eating canned food from a spoon and a photo of him relaxed, rolled onto his back, paws flung into the air for a catnip-induced doze.

“We’ve had two or three offers to adopt him, several people would like to come by to visit with him to help acclimate him to being with people — or just to meet this great kitty — and many sending prayers, well wishes and good thoughts,” said Andy Hanna, volunteer social media coordinator for HART. “In the end, I think everyone likes a feel-good story.”

As Big Hurt settled in and slowly began to heal, shelter volunteers tweaked his name. Big Hurt became Burt.

“Frankly, I think the connotation is a little bit better,” Smith said. “I don’t want to have a cat with ‘Hurt’ in his name. We want to turn them all around and make them all unhurt. That’s our goal here.”

Today, Burt spends much of his time in a cage in the shelter’s intake room, where he can retreat to a specially designed opaque box when he feels overwhelmed by noise or strangers. Because he is still wary of people, staff started getting him used to humans by feeding him wet food from a spoon or using a back scratcher to stroke his head.

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Burt relaxes at the HART Adoption Center & Shelter For Cats in Cumberland after playing with a toy mouse covered in catnip. HART

On a recent afternoon, Burt closed his eyes and leaned into the back scratcher, looking blissful as Smith rubbed under his chin and behind his jowls.

“Oh my goodness, look at him. This is super encouraging. He’s not hating people, he’s not hating petting,” Smith said. “No, you’re not feral.”

Those who have gotten close to Burt believe he is probably a Ragdoll, either purebred or mixed breed, and may have been someone’s long lost or abandoned pet. Though he has no microchip and is nervous around people, he does not act like a wild animal born and raised away from humans.

HART will likely look for an adoptive home for Burt once he’s more comfortable around people. The shelter hopes to move him from his cage soon, either to a foster home or to an adoption room where he can live in a larger space, be with other cats and work on socialization with trained volunteers.

“The next steps sort of will be up to him,” Smith said. “I kind of liken it to a ballet, with the cat leading.”

For now, Burt is safe, fed and warm. And, Harmon hopes, will have a better future.

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“It would be great to see him adopted into somewhere where he cannot be homeless and cold anymore,” Harmon said.

Animal Tales is a recurring Sun Journal feature about animals and their people. Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

 

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