They called Kaitlyn O’Hara a “cat whisperer.”
O’Hara loved all animals — the frightened, the broken, the abandoned. Her mission in life was to help all creatures in need. But this animal rescue volunteer and veterinary nurse had a special place in her heart for cats, especially ferals. Those nearly wild felines might hiss and scratch at others who came near. But O’Hara, with her patient, kind ways, would have them purring before long.
It was just such a cat, bleeding and injured on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, that O’Hara stopped to help on the night of Feb. 3. Instead, she lost her own life when she was struck by a car. She was 27 years old.
But O’Hara’s mission will not end with her death, say her family, friends, and colleagues.
They have created two memorial funds that will support two separate initiatives — both in O’Hara’s name — aimed at caring for the cats she so loved and honoring her life of service to creatures in need.
On May 23, Randall’s Rescue of Mount Laurel, an animal rescue organization where O’Hara was a longtime volunteer, and HousePaws, a veterinary service in New Jersey and Bucks County where O’Hara had worked, are cohosting a free clinic for area rescues to bring in feral felines for spay/neuter services. They’ll also be administering feline AIDS and leukemia tests and looking for foster homes where some animals can be socialized for adoption. The organizers would like the event — which they have christened Kaitlyn’s Mitten Mission, a play on O’Hara’s nickname for cats and kittens — to become an annual occurrence.
Already, 10 veterinarians with HousePaws have volunteered their time, pharmaceutical companies have donated supplies, and many members of the rescue community have donated funds in memory of one of their own.
“Kaitlyn had a special place in her heart for these [feral] cats, because they need the most help,” said Dana Koch, a HousePaws medical director who had volunteered with O’Hara on veterinary missions abroad with the nonprofit Caribbean Spay Neuter.
At the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a veterinary anesthesia nurse, O’Hara’s heartbroken colleagues have created Kaitlyn’s Kitties Good Samaritan Fund to provide medical care to felines in need. “No mitten left behind” was one of O’Hara’s mantras.
Amy Dowling, a fellow veterinary anesthesia nurse who led the effort to create the fund, was inspired by one of O’Hara’s tattoos: Saving one animal may not change the world, but it will change the world for one animal.
“If we save one cat, that would mean the world to Kaitlyn,” Dowling said.
Whenever a young person dies, it’s a shock and a great sorrow. That O’Hara, a rescuer, died trying to save an animal only adds to the tragedy.
But the great outpouring since O’Hara’s death has become about much more than that terrible irony. Those who cherished her want to nurture her legacy — one of pure, openheartedness, endless compassion, light-spiritedness, fearlessness, and boundless capacity for love, especially for creatures that had none.
Growing up in Browns Mills, N.J., and living most recently in Medford with her fiancé, Edward Bonen, 31, O’Hara took in countless cats and kittens over the years, as well as the animals that she had adopted. At the time of her death, she had six cats — Mozzer, Lt. Dan, Loki, Pickle, Fry, and Kiff — a goofy pit bull, Penny, and a feral cat she was fostering and had named Mama Mitten. A particularly hard case, Mama Mitten was finally letting down her guard after nearly a year of O’Hara’s persistent kindness.
She kept a room in her home just for fosters, especially those fearful feral kittens and their mothers.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say she would take hours out of her day, sit in the cat room, at their level, and read a book just to familiarize the animals with people,” Bonen said. “I couldn’t go near these things. But she would go in and whisper at them and make them into regular house cats.”
Whenever one of O’Hara’s fosters found a home, Randall’s Rescue president Cindy Randall was quick to ask her which cat she was taking next.
“I told her, ‘You’re our resident kitty whisperer. We need you,’” said Randall, now the lead organizer in the rescue’s fund-raiser in O’Hara’s name. In addition to cohosting the May clinic, the rescue is raising money for other initiatives to keep O’Hara’s legacy alive, Randall said.
O’Hara was also respected and loved at Penn Vet, where she worked her magic on animals and humans alike. Not only did everyone from the hospital’s anesthesia department pay their respects to O’Hara’s family at her funeral, so did many other hospital employees who held her in warm regard.
“Yes, she was a cat whisperer,” said Giacomo Gianotti, hospital service head of anesthesia, but “she was also incredible at her job. That required a lot of discipline, a lot of knowledge, a lot of studying. She was an accomplished professional. Her job was part of her mission, and she did it in the best possible way.”
Her Penn colleagues held their own memorial for O’Hara, hanging a photograph of her, on which they wrote their memories, in the middle of the anesthesia prep room. It’s the room’s only photograph of a person, Gianotti said.
If her coworkers were sad or troubled, she would notice and offer comfort, he said.
“I like to say we had a special relationship, but I think in reality she had a special relationship with everybody,” said Gianotti. “She made everybody feel special.”
Before her death, O’Hara had been focused with excitement on the future. Bonen said O’Hara was considering becoming a veterinarian. And the couple were planning to be wed next January in Vermont.
“She loved how the snow made everything white and pure,” he said.
O’Hara’s family has been touched by all the kind words about her that have been posted on Randall’s Rescue’s Facebook page regarding her fund. Bonen, a heating and air-conditioning technician, meanwhile, is caring for their six cats, the pit bull, and the feral who had begun to trust humans. The cat that O’Hara died trying to help, a big calico, didn’t make it. So Bonen buried it in their Medford yard, as O’Hara would have wanted.
Where O’Hara’s passion sprung from, he said, she could never explain.
“Her whole body, her whole essence, was just a beating heart,” said her fiancé. “I don’t know why she cared so much. She had these traits before I met her. She was just born that way.”
It would mean so much to her to know what people are now doing in her name, he said.
“For her to see how many people are coming out in support of the animals, she would absolutely be beside herself,” Bonen said. “There is not a single doubt in my mind. She would be happy.”
For more information about Randall’s Rescue’s fund-raiser, visit facebook.com/RandallsRescue. Randall’s Rescue can provide information about Kaitlyn’s Mitten Mission, the May 23 spay/neuter event.
For more information about Penn Vet’s Kaitlyn’s Kitties Good Samaritan Fund, go to https://giving.apps.upenn.edu/ and search for Kaitlyn’s Kitties Good Samaritan Fund, or call Helen Radenkovic at 215-898-2029.