Maree Erkkila and her partner Pete Ellice were driving home from lunch at a restaurant near her home in Aracaju, Brazil, when they spotted a homeless cat who appeared desperately in need of help. “He was so skinny that I said, ‘That cat looks about to die!’ ” remembers Maree, but being disabled, she didn’t have the funds to help the sickly feline. However, Maree told her fellow members of a cat group about the emaciated animal, and they agreed that if she rescued him, they would pay his medical bills until he was adopted.
The following day, May 2, 2018, Maree returned to the area where she and her partner had seen the bedraggled ginger cat, but they were unable to locate him. “We searched everywhere for him — with no luck — but got a number for a local volunteer who feeds the colony,” says Maree, and she reached out to the caretaker, telling her they wanted to rescue a specific cat. The next day, she got a call from the volunteer, letting Maree and Pete know she’d caught the kitty in question, Bob, aka Robert.
The following morning, the couple took Robert straight to the vet where a thorough examination revealed he was approximately seven years old, and he had a number of health issues, including stomatitis and a fungal infection. “He had mouth trouble for years, so had been in pain for years,” says Maree, but she doesn’t blame his caretakers. “The volunteers don’t even have enough money for food for the colony, so they couldn’t treat Robert’s condition for any useful length of time.”
Robert also tested positive for feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, which can weaken a cat’s immune system, making it harder for them fight diseases and infections. While there is a lot of misinformation about FIV all over the world, Maree — who is originally from New Zealand — discovered the virus carries a big stigma throughout much of her adopted home of Brazil. “When we rescued him people said, ‘He’ll be snapped up for adoption with his coloring!’ ” explains Maree. “But as soon as he tested FIV+, he was ignored.”
Because FIV is usually transmitted through sex and deep bite wounds, it’s possible for cats who have the virus to live with cats who don’t just as long as everyone is sterilized and gets along well. However, not everyone realizes this, making it harder for FIV positive felines to find homes.
“Here in Brazil, some people who met Robert still thought they could catch FIV!” says Maree, and even she had been misinformed about the virus, causing her to think she wouldn’t be able to foster or adopt Robert. “Vets here still say that you cannot mix FIV positive and negative cats under any circumstances and many still believe minimal contact can spread FIV, so with three cats at home, we thought my apartment was not an option.”
After he was rescued, Robert spent several weeks at the vet’s office undergoing treatments while Maree did everything she could think of to try to find him a forever home. “I did a singing video of him all sad, lip syncing ‘Somebody to Love’ by Queen,” says Maree, “but not one single person made contact about fostering or adopting him.”
Robert became increasingly depressed at the vet’s office, so Maree tried to convince her partner Pete to foster him. After all, he was a animal lover, but he’d sworn off adopting another pet after someone fatally poisoned his beloved cat. Thankfully, Pete relented, and on July 13, 2018, he began fostering Robert. “At first he was very frightened to be at the foster home, so he bit me very hard,” remembers Maree. “Ironic, being bitten by a cat with hardly any teeth.”
Over time, the former street cat became more comfortable in his foster home, despite needing multiple medications each day for stomatitis gingivitis complex and an aggressive fungal infection. By the following month, Pete — who had been extremely reluctant to open his home to another cat — had fallen in love with Robert, so he adopted him on August 2, 2018.
More than a year later, Robert is doing well, and he recently completed treatment for the fungal infection that caused his fur to fall out. “If he had not been a street cat, he’d never have got to such an advanced stage with his conditions, so care would have been much easier,” explains Maree.
As a result, Maree and her partner started Robert’s Rescues, a campaign to help more homeless animals like their handsome boy, and they’re currently trying to raise funds to help Vovô, who has FIV and is in foster care, and Lelepe, who desperately needs oral surgery and is currently homeless.
“He is still on the streets as very few people will consider adopting him as he is black and there is huge prejudice here,” explains Maree. “Unbelievably, Lelepe has had two offers of homes in the USA, but that is also out of the question without donations to pay his flight.” While animals like Vovô and Lelepe often have trouble finding homes, frequently because of negative stigmas about current and former street cats, Maree has learned firsthand that they can make wonderful companions.
Robert, who was once homeless and in constant discomfort, enjoys spending time with Maree and Pete, and he absolutely adores when his parents read children’s stories to him. He also loves listening to music, especially songs by Ed Sheeran. “For some reason he’s taken a real shine to Ed’s music,” says Maree. “The other day he held the speaker in his paws while Ed was on.”
He’s even started to play with toys, something he didn’t do until after he had oral surgery, proving just how much pain Robert must have been in before he was rescued. “One of the volunteers who fed him on the street cried when she saw the video of him playing,” says Maree. “She said he had never, ever played in his seven years on the street.”
Thanks to Maree and Pete, those days are behind Robert, and this remarkable couple is trying to educate the people in their community about trap-neuter-return (TNR) and FIV so that more cats won’t have to suffer like their affectionate boy did before they came along.
Due to his many health issues, Robert has required a lot of extra time and care, and Maree realizes not everyone is up to the challenge of helping a special needs cat. However, for those who are, she believes they will be rewarded with the same unique bond she now shares with Robert. “Special cats deserve love too,” says Maree. “Their gratitude for the love and care they get is visible! Robert is much closer to me than any of my three ‘normal’ cats.”
In addition to the gratitude she has received from Robert, this former street cat has taught Maree a lot of invaluable life lessons, especially about the importance forgiveness. After all, this handsome boy has endured months of medications and painful procedures, and yet he’s always been quick to forgive his mom, showing Maree that she shouldn’t hold grudges.
“He’s such a trooper, always positive, and nothing gets him down for long, even under the most horrible circumstances like going almost bald or taking ten medicines a day,” explains Maree. “He brightens my day every day with his super loud purring and happy face. Robert means the world to me. I couldn’t imagine life without him now!”
To learn more about this handsome cat, you can follow Robert on Instagram.