DANBURY, Conn. — Stephanie Lyons-Keeley and her husband Wayne Keeley found comfort in their Minskin kitten Luke after the death of Keeley’s 23-year-old son in 2020.

Now, the couple strives to help local students relax, de-stress and understand people and animals with disabilities by bringing Luke and other cats with disabilities to college campuses. They visit Western Connecticut State University and Naugatuck Valley Community College’s Danbury and Waterbury campuses during midterms and finals to provide pet therapy.

“It’s a responsibility that we have as human beings to take care of animals that can’t take care of themselves,” Lyons-Keeley, a psychology professor at NVCC, said, “and we inspire people… We’ve taken the stigma out of disability, which we try to do with humans as well.”

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Luke has spina bifida, a congenital condition that can cause loss of coordination, abnormal walking, and urinary and fecal incontinence. Luke is joined by Billie Eyelash, a tabby with a rear leg deformity; Ruby, who has moderate cerebellar hypoplasia; and Sammy, who has a disability as a result of abuse.

During a recent “Cats on Campus” event at NVCC’s Danbury campus, a few students said their interactions with the cats changed the way they think about animals with disabilities.

“I was taught by my parents to get cats from the shelter that are the healthiest,” said Cole Rondon, a NVCC freshman from Danbury, “but now that I met them, I would consider them as companions as well.”

Bringing Luke home

Lyons-Keely and Keeley of Danbury adopted Luke following the death of Keeley’s son, Wyatt, who died in December 2020 from complications from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that affects the muscles.

Keeley, a communications professor at Western, said he was overwhelmed with grief from his son’s death when he found a video on Instagram of a kitten trying to climb the stairs after his brother. Keeley said the kitten reminded him of his son, and he was inspired to bring the kitten home.

“Wyatt was an animal lover,” Keeley said, “and he had this smile and this intensity and this innocence that we see in Luke and the other animals.”

The couple named the kitten — who was then called Able — Luke after Luke Skywalker to honor Wyatt Keeley’s love of “Star Wars.”

Lyons-Keeley said opening their minds and hearts to Luke inspired them to look into adopting another cat with a disability. Today, she said they have multiple cats with disabilities, four of which have a neurological disorder called cerebellar hypoplasia that causes uncoordinated movement and loss of balance.

‘The cats are here’

Lyons-Keeley said she remembered the hallway was lined with students when she and Keeley had their first “Cats on Campus” at Western last year.

“I thought that can’t be for us,” she said. “And I heard students saying, ‘The cats are here, the cats are here,’ and I was so overwhelmed. It was a small room, so students had to wait to come in and it was packed the entire time.”

Among the students at the most recent visit was Harmony Reynoso, a freshman from Danbury.

“Honestly, I feel all animals are like humans,” she said. “They deserve the same kind of love and respect.”

Keeley said each college visit has had “a constant influx of students coming in and out.”

“We actually had to have some people leave the room to make sure they had enough room for the students,” said Tammy MacBrien Downs, a counselor at NVCC. “It’s at the point now that we have the students asking, ‘When are the cats going to be back?'”

She said having the cats on campus is an opportunity “to see we all have differences” and people drop their guard once they see the cats.

Broadening their scope

Lyons-Keely said they’d like to bring their cats to nursing homes and other facilities for pet therapy and talking about responsible pet ownership.

In addition to working on a children’s book and a graphic novel about Luke, the couple have been working on a documentary about their experiences and growing their social media presence. Luke has more than 34,400 followers on TikTok and about 5,560 followers on Instagram.

Lyons-Keeley said they have also talked to Danbury Public Schools about bringing their cats in for anti-bullying programs to increase awareness around animal disabilities and anti-bullying.

“I can see myself sitting down and saying, ‘You wouldn’t bully this cat, would you?'” she said. “If they can’t conceive of harming an animal and making fun of an animal, it may register to them in a different way.”

© 2023 The News-Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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