There is no shortage of cats on the internet—a vast storehouse of pictures, videos, image macros and animated GIFs of the furry companions. The cutest among them can even gain celebrity status, racking up thousands of followers eager to see more of the world’s grumpiest and dopiest mugs.
One of those meowing celebrities is Boston’s Kyle, an exotic shorthair with a white moustache, an off-kilter ear, twin wild patches of untamable whiskers and an apparent willingness to wear tiny costumes.
But Kyle, who has nearly 70,000 followers on Instagram (via the name mycatkyle) is no ordinary Internet cat. That’s because about seven years ago, the rescue witnessed a murder—a case of domestic violence that ended fatally in Indiana.
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“It’s always been this really fascinating fact that we’ve known about him,” said Jen Rice, the cat’s owner, who lives in Jamaica Plain and works for a local university. “When he started gaining more followers on Instagram, people said, ‘Tell me about the murder.’”
Now, Rice said, she’s been putting Kyle’s celebrity to good use, raising funds and awareness for pet-friendly domestic violence shelters — places where victims can escape an abusive relationship and take their pets with them, or where victims can be assured their pets will be cared for offsite.
“I started Googling domestic violence and pets and found out there’s this huge need for domestic violence shelters to accept pets,” she said. “Until I got Kyle I didn’t even know there was this dire need.”
Rice has raised thousands so far by selling merchandise (shirts, plush toys, pillows, fashion accessories) featuring Kyle’s lovable face, or by accepting money from companies to feature their products in her feed. All the proceeds go to an organization dedicated to the issue calledRedRover, and the New York City Urban Resource Institute’sPeople and Animals Living Safely(URIPALS) program.
She has also lent the benefits of the My Cat Kyle brand to RedRover for when the nonprofit heads to a cat-lover’s convention next month in Los Angeles, where she plans to distribute thousands of leaflets with information about domestic violence and pets.
Rice joins many among Massachusetts abuse researchers and victim advocates who havebeen calling for renewed focus on the role of pets in abuse cases.
An organization in Berkshire County called theHuman/Animal Violence Education Network(HAVEN) leads an education program on the connection between animal abuse and violence in the home. A statewide program calledSafePet—which is run by the Berkshire Humane Society—links domestic violence survivors with foster families that can care for their pets in times of need.
Options for pets can be a life-saver, Rice said.
According toThe National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly three-quarters of abuse survivors say their partner injured or threatened a family pet, and more than half end up having to leave their pets in the care of their abusive partners when they flee violence. Nearly half of survivors said they delayed their choice to leave home due to concerns about their animals.
And right now, she said, just 5 percent of domestic violence shelters allow victims to bring their pets with them.
In the months since Rice started her campaign to leverage Kyle’s star power, she said she’s been thrilled that so many of her cat’s fans have chipped in, spread the word or used the hashtag#CatsAgainstDV.
Also, she said, many survivors of abuse have reached out to offer their support, or just to say thanks.
“People who have been victims of domestic violence and follow Kyle’s account have said Kyle served as a source of inspiration for them because he’s kind of this bright light. Things can get better and you can find peace,” Rice said. “That has been extremely rewarding.”