CAPE ELIZABETH — No one knows exactly how long Burt lived on the streets, but it was probably years. He was bedraggled when he was finally captured last year: His ears were gone, his teeth broken, his eyes swollen and infected, his nose dotted with cuts and scars.

He won the hearts of thousands of people on social media, first as he spent an entire winter evading capture in Wilton, then as he recuperated at the HART cat shelter in Cumberland, then when he found an adoptive family who cherished him.

But Burt’s fairy tale story ended suddenly last month. One year after his adoption, almost to the day, Burt died after an undiagnosed heart problem that caused a blood clot in his heart.

Burt spent his last year happy in his adoptive home in Cape Elizabeth. Photos submitted by Lily Collins

“We had a chance to at least say goodbye and hold him,” said Chris Collins, Burt’s adoptive mom, as she struggled not to cry.

Burt was a longtime stray when Jeff Harmon spotted him outside his Wilton home last year. Harmon, a cat lover, was heartbroken by Burt’s condition. On Facebook, he referred to the stray as The Big Hurt Cat. Then just Big Hurt. As winter wore on, a growing number of friends and friends of friends followed along online as Harmon chronicled his attempts to catch the cat.

One March day in 2019, he finally walked into Harmon’s trap.

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

With three cats already and limited income due to a disability, Harmon could not keep the stray, who clearly needed medical help. Ultimately, HART offered him a place.

At HART, Big Hurt became Burt.

Burt’s social media star continued to rise. 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. The shelter posted regular updates of his progress.

After weeks of work with shelter volunteers, Burt changed from a cat who couldn’t be touched to one who enjoyed being scratched under the chin. He discovered a fondness for other cats and liked snuggling with his shelter roommates. That summer, four months after he was brought in from the cold, Burt was put up for adoption.

In Cape Elizabeth, Collins was following HART’s Facebook posts about Burt. Her family had taken in its own badly injured stray cat years before, a beloved boy they named Charlie. He had died a few years earlier, but Collins could not get over how similar Burt looked.

Collins and her adult daughter, Lily, stopped by HART to see him. Burt had ignored other potential adopters, but he instantly adored the two women. When Collins stopped petting him during their visit, he nipped at her hand to get her to start again.

Burt went home to Cape Elizabeth.

For the next year, Burt spent his days cuddling with Lily, lounging in the outdoor cat cabana and trying to get the attention of his three new feline brothers.

“He lacked some social skills when it came to the other cats,” Collins said. “But Burt had such an incredible, joyful, optimistic (spirit). The very same lack of social awareness in a weird kind of way was his best friend because he just simply wouldn’t give up. He was going to be friends. He just wound up bringing so much joy into the house.”

Burt’s new family kept him connected to his fans on social media. Lily regularly posted photos of Burt and his brothers on Instagram at Maine.Puffs. In early July, she posted a close-up picture of Burt and a message celebrating the one-year anniversary of his adoption.

“Lil Burt, we are so proud of the way you haven’t let life get you down. You are sweet, playful, and companionable as can be, and we couldn’t love you more,” she wrote. “We are grateful, today and always, to the wonderful people who helped save Burt from life as a stray, and who showed him all the love in the world.”

A day later, Collins found Burt in pain, his back legs paralyzed. An emergency vet diagnosed saddle thrombosis. Burt might have regained function in his back legs, but the paralysis was likely to return. His overall prognosis was grim. He was in a lot of pain.

The family made the heart-breaking decision to let him go.

When HART announced Burt’s death last week on its Facebook page, the post received hundreds of responses within hours.

Harmon, Burt’s Wilton rescuer, was as heartbroken as anyone when he heard the news.

“It is some comfort that he was warm, fed and loved for his last year,” he said.

In February, the Collins family created a temporary HART fund in Burt’s honor. After his death, they decided to create a permanent fund in his memory.

The Burt Fund will help pay HART for the care of stray cats, including their medical costs. The Collins family seeded the fund with $1,100. So far it has just under $1,600.

“All of us at HART of Maine are saddened by Burt’s passing. He captured all of our hearts with his big personality and the love he had for all of us,” said HART operations director Andy Hanna. “We are honored to work with the Collins family to establish The Burt Fund to help other stray cats and kittens who come into our shelter and foster home.”

Meanwhile, the Collins family mourns Burt’s passing while also celebrating his life.

“We’re so grateful to the community that’s been behind Burt at every step of his journey. Little Burt carried the love of all those people in his heart and everyone could see it. His rescue represents the best of humanity, and he didn’t waste a moment giving that love back to us every day. It was a privilege to share his triumphs with his community through Maine.Puffs,” Lily said. “We’ll never stop missing him and wishing we had more time together. Even so, we are so thankful to have him in our hearts.”

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