Shelby Thorpe was browsing Craiglist in February 2018, on the lookout for any kittens near her home in Portland, Oregon, who might be in need of her help as an experienced foster cat mom. “I came across an ad for two special needs kittens,” remembers Shelby. “The post had them listed at $100 each.”
Shelby was confident that a local rescue would help the pair of 8-week-old kittens with unusual hind legs and unusually short tails, but when she saw that they were still listed on Cragislist two days later, she contacted their owner and asked for more information about them.
“I could see in the photos that there was something wrong with their back legs and assumed it was twisted leg syndrome,” explains Shelby. “I knew twisted leg syndrome is something that can sometimes easily be corrected when kittens are newborns and that if they’re a bit older surgery can be an option.”
The owner of the kittens sent Shelby a video of the pair moving around, one of which she shared with her followers on Instagram, and another foster parent urged her to help the 2-month-old special needs cats. While Shelby was concerned about the cost involved with helping the siblings — one male and one female — she received the support and encouragement she needed to rescue the adorable pair.
“The person who gave me the last push I needed to go get them has a large following and offered to help me get the ball rolling if I created a Youcaring account,” says Shelby. “I felt that I would be able to give them the best opportunity to live as normal a life as possible and once I realized that, I didn’t want to think about what their lives might be like if I didn’t go get them.”
On February 5, 2018, Shelby met the kittens in person for the first time — naming the black and white boy Haiku and the tabby and white girl Sonnet — and while they appeared to be in good health, she was very surprised by their diminutive size. “When I met them I was shocked at how small they seemed,” remembers Shelby.
While speaking to Sonnet and Haiku’s owner, Shelby learned that the kittens’ mother was an indoor cat who had accidentally escaped from her home. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been spayed yet, and during her time outdoors, she became pregnant with a litter of six kittens, only four of which survived. “The two other survivors had normal legs and they both have tails unlike Sonnet and Haiku,” says Shelby.
Shortly after Shelby picked up Sonnet and Haiku, she took them to her vet to learn more about their twisted hind legs, and the pair of kittens was diagnosed with tibial hemimelia. “Tibial hemimelia is a rare congenital anomaly characterized by a short or absent tibia,” explains Shelby. “We can’t be sure why Sonnet and Haiku were born with it. It’s possible it’s genetic, but it could also be that their mom came in contact with a toxin while she was pregnant or had a nutrient deficiency.”
While no one can say for certain why Haiku and Sonnet were born with tibial hemimelia, Shelby learned that if they didn’t have corrective surgery, they would not be able to have happy and active lives. “It was determined by the surgeon that the way their legs were was not compatible with a pain-free life and that was a huge reason I decided to pursue surgery,” says Shelby. In addition to the pain and discomfort caused by tibial hemimelia, the cognitive condition severely impacted Sonnet and Haiku’s movement which made it very difficult for them to go about their daily activities.
“Since they were essentially sitting down all the time they would get very messy when they used the litter box. This caused them a considerable amount of stress,” explains Shelby. “Cats are naturally clean animals. They don’t like getting dirty and I imagine it must’ve felt like they were being punished every time they needed to relieve themselves.” Fortunately, lots of generous donors wanted to help Sonnet and Haiku, allowing Shelby to raise the money needed for the kittens to get multiple corrective surgeries on their hind legs.
Following the surgeries, Shelby began doing physical therapy with Sonnet and Haiku to help them heal and get the best results possible. “Haiku can be a bit stubborn when it comes to physical therapy and Sonnet can get antsy when her feet are worked with,” says Shelby.
While they’re both still recovering from their operations, these adorable kittens are able to move around better than ever, although there a few challenges left for them to overcome. “Sonnet is still learning how to use her back legs and Haiku is building strength in them and working on balance,” explains Shelby.
Even though Sonnet and Haiku have both been through a lot, undergoing multiple surgeries during their first few months of life, they’re both very happy and affectionate cats who absolutely adore being around people. “Haiku loves running after people and getting right in front of them so he can plop down and ask for belly rubs,” says Shelby. “Sonnet loves playing with her toys and snuggling. One of her nicknames is Snuggle Monster.”
While it’s obvious to Shelby that Sonnet and Haiku are content young cats, she knows that some well-meaning people think she should have had their hind legs amputated or simply put these special kittens to sleep instead of opting for surgery and physical therapy. However, Shelby hopes that by sharing their story, she can help change the way many people view special needs cats like Haiku and Sonnet.
“I wish more people understood that quality of life is not based on the way they feel when they see an animal that is different. Projecting their emotions on these animals leads them to believe that the animal is sad and that their life isn’t worth living,” says Shelby. “Special needs animals may need a little more care, but unless they are suffering there isn’t any reason to feel sorry for them. They don’t know they’re different.”
Even though Sonnet and Haiku might not realize they’re different, they’re uniqueness is impossible to ignore, even for Shelby, although it has nothing to do with how they look or walk. “They are both so resilient and friendly and take everything that’s thrown at them in stride. After everything they have been through, it’s amazing they came out of it the way they did,” says Shelby. “Sonnet and Haiku mean the world to me.”