Blind cat, Fantastic Mr. Fawkes, is full of adventure on SM

NEWPORT NEWS — Fawkes takes a few steps on a grassy patch at Christopher Newport University, stops, raises his head toward the sun and flicks his ears to catch any sounds.

The 6-month-old kitten with no eyes listens for his owner’s voice, knowing he can follow that.

He turns toward passing bikes, falling acorns and buzzing insects but only occasionally looks startled or hesitant. When students approach, Zoë Churchill, his owner, tells them to talk to him as they approach him slowly.

Fawkes then gladly nudges his pink nose into their hands.

“He was so immediately brave,” said Churchill, who adopted Fawkes in August from Symbiotic, a Suffolk-based nonprofit rescue group. “I would love for him to teach people how much he can do despite his disability. It doesn’t make him any less perfect.”

Since losing his eyes to a life-threatening infection in July, Fawkes has dared to climb on and off logs, high-step through tall grass and dip his paws in the ocean. Churchill and her boyfriend, Bruce Sheppard, also have helped him learn to navigate their one-bedroom apartment in Newport News with treats, voice commands and patience.

Fawkes now goes on regular excursions to CNU, Newport News Park, Willoughby Beach and Barnes & Noble, and Churchill chronicles their outings on her rapidly growing Instagram account, fawkes/”>“Fantastic Mr. Fawkes.” As his story spread, the account sometimes logged hundreds of new fans each day. As of Wednesday, Fawkes had more than 23,000 followers.

Fawkes hangs out at home in Newport News on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. Zoe Churchill adopted Fawkes, who lost both his eyes — likely due to an infection — and has gained a large Instagram following.

For rescuers at Symbiotic, Fawkes’ new life is miraculous. He and his sister were found in June, barely surviving under a car at a rural apartment complex outside Franklin. He was named Lewis; his sister, Clark. They were only about a month old.

The kittens were malnourished and covered in fleas, their eyes ulcerated, scarred and bulging, likely from a viral infection. Each kitten weighed barely a pound, far below the threshold to safely undergo surgery.

Symbiotic tried to buy time with antibiotics and pain medication, but Fawkes worsened.

“One morning, I found him almost lifeless and moaning in pain,” said Danielle Shafer, a Symbiotic co-founder who fostered the kittens. “His eyes had to come out immediately.”

Fawkes, recovering from surgery. He landed with a Newport News couple determined to showcase the joys of owning a special-needs pet.

The kittens underwent the risky double-eye removal surgery in early July. Clark did not survive. Her brother did, and his eyelids were sewn shut.

The kitten returned to Shafer in good spirits but clearly unhappy about having to wear a cone and stay by himself as he healed.

“When I did put him in with my other kittens, I expected him to take it slow,” Shafer recalled. “No way. He was all spunky, like, ‘Let me go, I’ve got things to do.’ He just wanted to play.”

The kitten caught Churchill’s attention on Symbiotic’s social media pages. The recent CNU graduate, who works in animal care at the Virginia Living Museum, had adopted Fable from the organization in June.

On Churchill’s first visit to Shafer’s house, the tiny orange kitten climbed into her lap and started purring.

“She fell in love fast,” Shafer recalled, adding with a laugh, “I thought she was going to spend the night.”

Churchill renamed him Fawkes for the heroic phoenix character in the “Harry Potter” series. She researched blind kittens online and connected with their owners by following their social media accounts.

Fawkes stayed in Churchill’s walk-in closet for a day before gradually exploring the apartment and interacting with Fable, who is about 2. He sometimes bumped into furniture as he memorized the layout, but he rarely made the same mistake twice.

Churchill and Sheppard, a graduate student at CNU, initially shadowed Fawkes and helped him jump on and off the sofa and bed by patting the cushions, mattress and floor so he could estimate the distance by sound. Fawkes also likes to feel for the floor with his paws before getting down, and he won’t leap onto higher surfaces such as countertops.

Churchill had a childhood friend who walked her cat on a harness and leash, and she wondered if Fable and Fawkes might enjoy it. Fable was too nervous, but Fawkes took to the outdoors, first riding in a sling or backpack carrier and then getting on the ground.

“We couldn’t have imagined how far Zoë would take him,” Shafer said. “She’s very careful with him, but he’s out there in the world. He’s inspiring because he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He just rolls with it.”

Churchill plans to take Fawkes on other adventures, including a road trip to her native Harrisonburg for Christmas.

“He’s unafraid, and he’s such a happy little guy,” she said. “He just makes people happy.”

Reach Alison Johnson at [email protected]

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