As Texans begin to pick up the pieces of their homes and livelihoods following the unprecedented destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey, a lone cat has become the state’s unofficial mascot and symbol of resilience in the face of devastation.
The photo (above), captured by Getty photographer Scott Olson, has become an instant meme: It shows an orange tabby, face twisted into an unmistakably annoyed scowl, paddling through a destroyed neighborhood in search of dry land.
“Badassery at its finest,” a Twitter user named Johnny commented, summing up the internet’s reaction to the photo.
The unnamed cat was doing what most humans and animals in the Houston area have been doing since the powerful Category 4 storm made landfall on Aug. 26 — just trying to survive. Harvey took 66 lives and rendered more than $70 billion in property damage alone, a figure that doesn’t include the damage to the local economy or the personal toll on people who lost everything. Authorities say the recovery effort will take years.
Untold stories of the animals of Harvey
But the often-overlooked story of disasters like Harvey is the toll on animals, whose lives were upended just as severely as those of their human counterparts.
There’s the story of Betty Walter, a 44-year-old Houston woman who refused to abandon her neighborhood’s dogs, who she rounded up in a boat and took into her attic for safety. Walter watched the rising floodwaters with one eye and her diminishing supplies with the other as she huddled with the 21 pooches before help arrived.
Across the country, there are stories of rescued cats and dogs popping up in shelters, waiting for their owners to claim them. Or, for the strays, waiting for forever homes. A coalition of four rescue groups in San Francisco saved 69 cats and dogs from Harvey’s flood waters; Virginia-based Wings of Rescue successfully airlifted some 200 cats and dogs from Houston-area shelters; and groups like the SPCA worked with local chapters, like the Atlanta Humane Society, which took in about 100 cats from Houston.
“We’re so proud of our animal welfare community here in Georgia for coming together and showing the true spirit of the South,” Atlanta Humane Society’s Tracy Reis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Cats can be fundraisers too
While cats in the Houston area needed rescuing, one feline from Brooklyn got involved in the fundraising for Harvey’s victims. In a move, her father called “the most millennial fundraising,” 29-year-old writer Rachel Millman used Twitter to ask people to donate to Harvey relief efforts. If they tweeted a receipt for their donation, Millman promised, she’d send them a photo of troublemaking Jerry misbehaving.
It turns out there were lots of people who opened their wallets for little Jerry’s antics, as the cat and Millman helped raise $21,249 for the hurricane’s victims.
Unfortunately, not every story had a happy ending. In hard-hit Beaumont, Texas, about 85 miles east of Houston, Janice Forse fell asleep on her couch with her two dogs the night of Aug. 29 — and the next morning awoke to find her home flooded, she told the Austin American-Statesman. When firefighters arrived a few hours later, Forse carefully helped her dogs and a litter of kittens she was fostering into a boat. As the boat pushed away, Forse heard plaintive meows coming from her house and realized she’d forgotten the kittens’ mother. She tried to go back, but the firefighters stopped her from plunging into the waist-high water.
On Sept. 2, rescue workers found the body of Camo, the momma cat. A distraught Forse “curled into a ball” and cried.
“I just keep thinking about that momma cat,” the 62-year-old cat lover told the Herald-Statesman. “I can’t believe it.”
Sacrificing for animals
And in Houston, Andrew Pasek died while trying to rescue his sister’s Maine Coon from her home. Pasek, who was known in his neighborhood for rescuing strays and fostering kittens, waded into the house without realizing the power was still on, People magazine reported. The 25-year-old Houston man had metal plates and pins in his ankle after a driver ran over his foot with a car in 2011. His family believes Pasek stepped on a live wire, with the metal acting as a conduit.
“He was just trying to be my hero,” Pasek’s sister, Alyssa, told the magazine.
With so much tragedy and heavy hearts, perhaps it’s not surprising that the angry orange tabby became a symbol for Texans picking up the pieces of their lives. There’s a certain defiance in the cat’s eyes that resonates with people.
“This cat just looks pissed — like he’s going to write a sternly worded letter to his city councilor when he gets home,” Laura Mullane wrote on Facebook, “right after he smokes a few cigarette butts out of the gutter, does a shot of Jack Daniels, and starts #bitchplease trending on Twitter of pictures of dogs in boats.”
Responding to questions about whether he rescued the pissed-off orange tabby, photographer Olson said the cat didn’t need his help.
“Most of the people had been evacuated and the cat was in no mood to be messed with,” Olson wrote, “so he is probably still on his own.”