When Kaitlyn O’Hara, veterinary nurse and advocate, lost her life last winter trying to save an injured cat on the side of a busy South Jersey highway, animal lovers in this region knew they had lost a superhero.
Now some friends and colleagues have embarked on a project to help keep O’Hara’s legacy alive.
And in doing so, they hope they might also inspire some new superheroes to follow O’Hara’s lead.
Cat Whisperer: The Adventures of Kaitlyn and Chloe is a new book written by Dana Koch, medical director of HousePaws veterinary practice, and author Danielle Lacy, a former director of the practice’s children’s education program. The book was illustrated by Phillip Barnes, marketing director of NorthStar.VETS.
“We decided in terms of bringing Kaitlyn’s memory to life, educating people was something she was also passionate about,” said Koch.
O’Hara — who grew up in Browns Mills, Burlington County, and lived in Medford with her fiancé, Edward Bonen — was a “cat whisperer,” someone who through her patient kindness managed to win over even the most frightened, feral felines that wanted nothing to do with other humans.
On Feb. 3, O’Hara stopped her car on Route 70 in Cherry Hill when saw an injured, bleeding cat on the side of the road. She left her vehicle to render aid but was fatally injured herself when she was struck by another vehicle. She was 27 years old.
Cat Whisperer, written as a children’s tale, encourages kids to help animals in need and identifies what some of those needs may be. It’s intended to be educational, in a gentle way. In the story, the Kaitlyn character is the hero, and her superpower is that she can speak to animals. With the help of her faithful Chloe, her Chihuahua, she rescues a litter of kittens.
But the story is based on something the real-life Kaitlyn did, and the suggestion to young readers is that someday they can have a real-life impact on animals, too.
“‘You’re your own superhero’ was our message,” Koch said.
Cat Whisperer is also meant to help raise funds for animal-minded groups to do the kind of animal activism and advocacy that was the driving force of O’Hara’s life.
So far, 11 animal groups have ordered the books to use as a fund-raising tool for their organizations — and that was before the books were ready to be shipped, Lacy said. (The authors are selling the book at deep discount to the groups, who can then sell the books at full price to generate sales to benefit their causes. Koch said they are donating proceeds of their sales to a local rescue.)
The book’s title is a nod to O’Hara’s gift, widely acknowledged by everyone who knew her — from fellow volunteers at local animal rescues to her boss, the head of anesthesia at Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a veterinary nurse.
After her death, friends and colleagues sought to memorialize her by helping the animals she was devoted to.
On May 23, Randall’s Rescue of Mount Laurel, an animal rescue group where O’Hara had been a longtime volunteer, and HousePaws cohosted a clinic offering free spay/neuter services to area feline rescue organizations.
“The event was very successful,” said Koch. “We treated over 130 cats that day, and we had over 35 medical volunteers, including eight doctors.”
She said the event also generated many donations of food, animal equipment, and toys that were then distributed to various rescue groups.
Also, a memorial fund in O’Hara’s honor — Kaitlyn’s Kitties Good Samaritan Fund — has been established by PennVet, where O’Hara was loved for her compassion and respected for her professionalism.
So far, the fund has raised nearly $8,300, which provided financial assistance to three needy pet owners whose cats were treated during emergency situations at Ryan Hospital, said PennVet spokesperson Martin J. Hackett.
The fund is “rooted in Kaitlyn O’Hara’s spirit of compassion and service,” said Hackett, allowing PennVet to provide quality, urgent care to all cats regardless of their owners’ financial situation. “The charitable support of those who contributed to Kaitlyn’s Kitties — through their simple acts of kindness — help us continue to enhance not only the lives of cats and their families but to honor the memory and life of Kaitlyn.”
The authors of Cat Whisperer are hoping their book helps on both of those fronts.
“She is still having an impact,” Koch said. “She isn’t forgotten.”