How one woman is helping elderly and ill people find good homes for their beloved animals
February 1, 2022, 9:33 am ASTLast Updated: February 1, 2022, 9:33 am
Angela Rafuse sat at the white Ikea desk tucked into the corner of her childhood bedroom. She was surrounded by walls built by friends and family, the lavender paint now faded. She ended a Zoom meeting, sat back in her chair and opened her phone. On that one day, May 18, 2021, she says, she amassed 500,000 views, 600 emails and $5,000 in donations. Her eyes widened.
Rafuse never imagined that an idea she thought of in her parents’ basement, during a pandemic, would gain this much traction.
Her grandfather had passed away in December 2019. Shortly after that she adopted his 15-year-old cat, Mackenzie. Due to Mackenzie’s grumpy personality, Rafuse knew she wouldn’t get adopted from a shelter. It would have to be someone from the family and Rafuse was the only one willing to take her.
Once the pandemic hit, Rafuse, 27, and Mackenzie moved in with her parents. She started posting videos of Mackenzie and her on TikTok. Mackenzie was often growling, hissing or cuddling. Rafuse put her in a harness and took her to the beach; the two went kayaking; they went to Tim Hortons for bacon. Some of her videos would get more than one million views.
Rafuse told viewers that she had recently adopted Mackenzie following her grandfather’s death. People started expressing their concerns about what to do with their grandparents’ animals after they passed. This prompted Rafuse to come up a solution: My Grandfather’s Cat.
She wanted an organization where seniors and terminally ill people could arrange a second home for their pets before they passed away or moved into an assisted living facility. A date was set to launch My Grandfather’s Cat – on her grandfather’s birthday, May 18.
Rafuse planned to help facilitate one adoption a year. Because she would not charge an adoption fee, her aim was to raise just $750. But five hours into the launch she ran upstairs to her parents, yelling that she had her first donation: $500 US. She and her mom both thought it was a mistake. They assumed the man in New York who sent the donation probably meant to send $50, so Rafuse emailed him. He wrote back almost immediately saying there was no mistake. He shared his story of having to put his grandparents’ cats in a shelter, and said he wished something like this had been around for him.
Meeting Angela Rafuse
When the sun rises, so does Rafuse. No matter the time of year, she is out of bed when the sun shines through her window. Rafuse is also a self-proclaimed workaholic. Her loved ones hide her phone at night so she isn’t up checking email at all hours.
She grew up in Chester, Nova Scotia, with her parents and younger sister and moved to Halifax to attend Saint Mary’s University. She started an arts degree, but during second year – after a friend said she wasn’t smart enough to go into business – switched to a bachelor of commerce. The best way to get Rafuse to do something is to tell her she can’t do it.
She graduated with a B.C. in global business management in 2016 but wasn’t sure what came next. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Rafuse said. “All I knew is that I wanted to help people.”
She holds deep empathy for all living things, is stubborn in the most noble way possible, knows her worth and will fight fiercely for those she loves. She does not give up easily and holds her values and morals close to her heart. While her heart is generous, it is also strong. Not much can discourage Rafuse, and if she wants something it will get done.
After Rafuse graduated, she moved to Toronto for work. In 2018 she was battling a mysterious illness that rendered her sick for almost four months. One morning she gets up to use the bathroom in her one-bedroom apartment in Toronto.
She woke up in the hospital with doctors rushing in and out of her room. She was told that her parents needed to be contacted; the doctors didn’t know what was wrong and they weren’t sure if she leave the hospital alive.
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By the time her mother arrived there was a diagnosis: a severe case of pneumonia. Rafuse was moved to isolation in the hospital, and everyone who entered had to change into a mask and gown. The doctors told her mom that their best shot was antibiotics. If those didn’t kick in, in 48 hours she would be put in a medically-induced coma.
Mom didn’t leave her daughter’s side. She kept hoping that the antibiotics would kick in. On hour 30 the medication started to work. Rafuse spent a full week in hospital before being released to recover at home.
The illness has had lasting impacts on her body. She was diagnosed with trauma induced depression, has suffered from memory loss and has little bladder control.
“Scientifically, I should be dead,” Rafuse said. “But sometimes I think I was kept alive for a reason, to do something. I don’t think I knew what it was until I started My Grandfather’s Cat.”
An unlikely adoption
Rafuse has always had pets. The first was a cat named Smokey. Over the years there were Thumper the rabbit and whitefish Bubbles, Rainbow, Thunder and Lightning. Every morning she would wake up and give each of the fish their favourite snack, a frozen pea. She also had two cats, Angel and Tiger, for 18 years. Their pictures affectionately hang in her living room.
Rafuse works at the Salvation Army as a fundraiser. While one day she hopes to have My Grandfather’s Cat be her full-time job, right now she is a volunteer.
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Mackenzie is the other half of the organization. Rafuse and the cat have more than 100,000 TikTok followers. Rafuse and Mackenzie have posted videos at the beach, where Mackenzie would run in her harness, make a bed in the sand and climb the rocks. When they ventured onto the water and started kayaking, Rafuse was shocked when she realized how much Mackenzie loved it. The cat would peer over the edge into the water.
In the first four months, 13 animals found a new home through My Grandfather’s Cat. Then Rafuse was asked to find a home for three senior cats, all sisters, living in Toronto: Autumn, Mia and Dori. When their owner passed away her sisters started caring for the cats. During Rafuse’s first phone call with the siters she was honest: this wasn’t going to be an easy adoption.
Rafuse knew that finding a person willing to adopt three senior cats into a home with no children or other animals was going to be a tall order. She sat down and wrote the profile, then posted it with a picture of the three cats curled up together on the couch, showing how bonded they were. Rafuse described the trio as the oldest, the middle and the youngest sister, hoping that their personalities would grab someone’s attention. A couple of applications came in. Rafuse talks to every prospective adopter about their home, lifestyle and previous pets. If the adopter is deemed okay, the applicant and the pet’s caretakers are put in contact with each other.
After two months, Autumn, Mia and Dori still hadn’t found a home. No applicants had been serious about adopting all three. Rafuse couldn’t bear the thought of splitting them, so kept looking. She told the cats’ caretakers that she didn’t know how long this was going to take, or even if it would work.
Then one morning Rafuse woke up to an email from Amy Carlberg, a writer at BlogTO, a popular online news site in Toronto. Carlberg saw people sharing Autumn, Mia and Dori’s story online and decided to write about it. Rafuse says this media attention alone created hundreds of followers in just days. Autumn, Mia and Dori started getting more applications.
Be the change
Rafuse describes the start of My Grandfather’s Cat as chaotic and beautiful and terrifying. It was like she had fallen in love and married a few months later with no deliberation.
The tattoo gun was humming. Rafuse sat in a chair, the aroma of antiseptic filling the room, her left arm lay on a table waiting for the ink to mark her skin. She spent the afternoon at her parents’ house calling tattoo shops in the area, seeing if anyone could take her that day. One said yes if she got there quickly. Without hesitation Rafuse got in her car. She felt nervous and confident, hoping that the words would serve as a permanent reminder of this time in her life.
“Be the change.” This is the mantra that Rafuse lives by – and runs My Grandfather’s Cat by. (It was originally said by Mahatma Gandhi.) She found herself thinking about “be the change” a lot in the weeks after the launch. More days than not she wanted to give up, overtaken by imposter syndrome and fear. “I wanted to have something where I could remember this point in my life” she said, “where every single day was chaos.”
Pepper was the first cat to find a new home through My Grandfather’s Cat. Rafuse was touched and surprised by the trust that a total stranger placed in her. Rafuse heard that Pepper had been adopted when she was driving from Halifax to Chester with Mackenzie. She stopped outside the Tim Hortons in Tantallon, sat in the car in a parking spot close enough to use the Wifi, and saw the email. This was the moment when she realized the whole enterprise would work.
About one month in, Rafuse got a call from Windsor, Nova Scotia. A man about to move into an assisted living facility – and said he needed someone to take his cat that week. Rafuse explained that she was the only volunteer, and that the organization didn’t house animals. The man said that if someone didn’t adopt his cat, 14-year-old Bore would be put down.
A profile was quickly posted. After one day an application came in, but the applicant then withdrew at the last minute. Soon it was only one day before Bore’s owner would move.
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Unable to stomach the idea of Bore being put down, and against her better judgement, Rafuse hopped in the car. It was pouring rain, but at 7 p.m. she pulled up to the house. She talked to the owner, who said he didn’t care where the cat ended up. Rafuse picked up the 10-pound orange cat, who was wet and timid. She brought him to her one-bedroom apartment in Halifax, expecting him to run and hide. Instead, he ran right into her bed and curled up to fall asleep. He made himself at home.
A few days later, after vetting a successful applicant, Rafuse dropped Bore off at his new home. She was satisfied with her second adoption. But it didn’t last long – within a couple of days she got a call to pick him back up. The person said Bore would not eat or drink and had been hiding under the couch.
Rafuse picked him up. When they got back to her apartment he ate and crawled onto her bed, just like it was his own. She knew that he had chosen Rafuse to be his new home. She adopted him and renamed him Bo.
Autumn, Mia and Dori
After the BlogTO story on Autumn, Mia and Dori, promising applications started coming in. Rafuse anxiously scanned her inbox.
Almost 2,000 kilometres away in Muskoka, Ontario Jane was on her iPad. Checking local news, she opened BlogTO. She read the story about Autumn, Mia and Dori, and sent an application to My Grandfather’s Cat.
Rafuse saw Jane’s application and arranged a phone call, hoping that this would be the one. Jane explained that when she saw the three cats she felt like she was supposed to have them.
Rafuse had a couple other calls from interested people, but Rafuse and the cat’s caretakers believed that Jane from Muskoka was the best option.
On Nov. 19, 2021, Autumn, Mia and Dori were on route to their new home. The three girls were dropped off one day after My Grandfather’s Cat six-month anniversary. It was the organization’s 24th adoption. That’s 23 more than Rafuse had hoped to complete in a full year.