Corky, a 7-month-old kitten born with a rare birth defect, was scheduled to be euthanized in March, but a vet tech at the pound took a liking to the cat and called CATS Cradle, a Fargo, N.D., no-kill shelter.
"She refused to describe that cat over the phone," says shelter co-founder Gail Ventzke. "She just said 'you have to see this'.” So Ventzke and co-founder Carol Stefonkek went to meet the mysterious little kitten.
“When we arrived, she brought this tangled little guy out of the cage area, and from that moment on he was ours,” says Ventzke.
She and Stefonkek named the cat Corky and took him straight to North Dakota State University for X-rays. They learned that Corky had been born with a genetic deformity called bilateral arthrogryposis of tarsus, meaning his back legs were backwards and overlapping. The disease is common in cattle, but rare in cats.
They contacted several vets, and all of them were wary of operating on the mangled kitten, but when they took Corky to Casselton Veterinary Service, they finally found a doctor willing to take a chance on him.
Dr. Dan Burchill examined Corky, noting that he was a “happy, healthy, engaging cat who dragged his back legs around,” and after considering all his options — including amputating his legs and putting him in a wheelchair — he decided to give surgery a shot. Burchill, who’s been practicing veterinary medicine for 17 years, had performed similar surgery on dogs, but this would be the first time he’d be attempting it on a cat.
The operation was originally estimated to cost $2,500, but the surgery lasted four hours and cost roughly $1,000 an hour — in addition to medication and veterinary fees. The operation was a success and the price doesn’t faze Ventzke, who says that CATS Cradle will fundraise to cover Corky’s bill.
However, Corky's healing process has been anything but smooth. A few days after surgery, he almost lost a leg due to poor circulation, and he's had to undergo two additional surgical procedures, including one to address swelling and a skin graft. Then, on April 25, Ventzke learned that Corky was going to lose one of his legs after all.
"It's now clear to us that the circulation will not return and the foot has begun to die, so the difficult decision had to be made to amputate a portion of his left leg. He will be going into surgery tomorrow afternoon (April 26) to have his leg removed from the lower portion of the tibia," she said. (Pictured right: Corky on the day before amputation.)
"This will hopefully put an end to all of the acupuncture and laser therapy he has had to endure for the past three weeks. Dr. Burchill has assured us that this is the best route to go, as taking just the foot would require further treatment on the leg and a much longer recovery with higher risk of infection."
Other than the circulation problem with his foot, Corky has been doing well, and last week he even stood on his own and learned to walk on his legs for the first time. Despite the amputation, Ventzke expects Corky to be just fine.
"Many cats live wonderful lives on three legs and we are betting that Corky will indeed be one who will thrive," she says.
On April 30, Ventzke announced on Facebook that Corky would finally be leaving the hospital: "Today will be a special day. We will be meeting with Dr. Burchill around 4 p.m. and after that, loading Corky up and bringing him home from the hospital. Corky has spent more time in the hospital than he has at the shelter with us!"
Since having his first operation, Corky has been undergoing physical therapy, which includes acupuncture, laser therapy and hydrotherapy, and due to the extended hospital stay and additional surgeries, the costs continue to mount — but it doesn’t look like CATS Cradle will have to foot the entire bill. The shelter has received donations from almost every U.S. state, as well as from other countries.
What will happen to Corky once he’s recovered? Ventzke says no final decisions have been made, but she and Stefonkek — who visit Corky daily — are considering having him stay at the shelter and become certified as a therapy pet.
“Our hope is to have him certified as a therapy pet and take him to visit children recovering from surgeries or disabilities so they can see that with determination and drive you can overcome anything,” Ventzke says.
Donations toward Corky's surgery and recovery can be made online at catscradleshelter.org or on the shelter’s Facebook page. CATS Cradle will put any excess funds toward rescuing more cats from local pounds. Since the shelter opened in January, not a single cat has been euthanized in any of the metro area’s three pounds, according to Ventzke.
Check out a recent video of Corky below to see how he took to his new legs after surgery. For more recent videos of Corky, and to see how he's learning to walk on three legs, check out his Facebook page.