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When she heard that her grandfather had fallen ill and likely wouldn’t recover, Angela Rafuse knew someone would have to step up and take in his cat, a 14-year-old grump named Mackenzie. Senior, touch-averse, and prone to scratching when overwhelmed, Mackenzie would never be a shelter-browser’s first pick. “The goal was just to make sure my grandfather died knowing that Mackenzie was going to be with me and she would be okay,” says Rafuse. “He did know that before he passed away, and I’m very, very glad he did.”
But as small-scale as Rafuse’s initial undertaking may have been, it was just the first ripple in a pond. A little over a year later, Mackenzie has since blossomed into a loving (though still adorably ornery) adventure cat with a massive internet following, and Rafuse has founded My Grandfather’s Cat, a Canadian charity that matches the pets of terminally ill and elderly pet parents with adopters. We talked to Rafuse about bonding with Mackenzie, stumbling into TikTok fame, and bringing solace to end-of-life pet parents.
Tell me about adopting Mackenzie.
I was living in Toronto at the time, but I had just gotten transferred back home [to Nova Scotia]. I had planned on living in a one bedroom apartment by myself. So I was like, “I will take her and figure it out.” When I moved home a few weeks later, my grandfather had since passed and Mackenzie and I moved into my parents’ basement. We were supposed to stay for a couple of months, but this was January of 2020 and then the pandemic hit. I’m immunocompromised, so my parents said my favorite line: “Why don’t you just stay here until the pandemic is over?” We all thought it would be a couple of weeks. It was obviously not, especially in Canada; our restrictions were lifted a few months ago.
What was it like bonding with her?
I had never pet her in 14 years. She would scratch or hiss. I remember my mom calling me and saying, “I petted Mack.” And I was like, “No, you didn’t. You must have put the brush against her and she rubbed it,’” And she’s like, “No, no, I pet her. She’s turning around.” It was really when we started adventuring together and she started associating me with fun that our bond took off.
How did you find out she was so adventurous?
She slowly started warming up, and then I was Amazon shopping — you know when you’re just getting one thing on Amazon and then all of a sudden your cart is up to $150? I was getting toys for Mackenzie and I added a harness. My parents were living upstairs with their other cats and they always let their cats out on the deck, so I thought maybe Mackenzie would like to go on the deck too, but I didn’t know if she was going to run or try to kill me. I got the harness on her and she loved it.
One day I’d walked her around the backyard and I was like, “I wonder how far I can take this.” As you can see, that’s a common theme in my life: How far can I take this? So I took her in the car and she just laid in the passenger seat. She walked around on the beach and saw the ocean. She loved it; she was a completely different cat. We live in Nova Scotia, so we’re very fortunate that we have a lot of beautiful sandy beaches. It’s cold all the time, so I ended up buying her a little sweater so she wouldn’t get chilly on beach walks. She doesn’t use the beach as a litter box, which many people assume she does; she’s a lady and she uses the portable litter box I keep in the back of my car.
And now she kayaks!
Right! I started walking her on the trails and one day I wondered if she’d like the kayak, because she loves the motion from the car. So I was sitting in the kayak and my dad put her on my lap — of course, I ordered her a lifejacket first to be sure she’d be safe — and she just loved it. She eventually fell asleep on my feet — she just naps in the kayak.
Sometimes when I show up at my parents house, if she’s not napping on her ledge or her cat tree, she will look at me and her eyes get so big and she just jumps and runs to the back door like, “let’s go somewhere!” It’s the greatest thing watching her love life and become such a sweet cat. She does have her spicy moments. But she’s a very, very loving girl now.
What gave you the idea to start posting TikToks?
There was a video of Mackenzie scratching me when I said, “Can you say Merry Christmas?” — it became a joke with my family. That was very normal for Mackenzie — or it was then; she’s not much of a scratcher anymore. My older cousins joked that it should go viral. So I said, “Oh, well, I’ll post this on TikTok.” And I mean, I’m almost 28; I was 27 then. I thought TikTok was just 12 year olds dancing. But I also knew that things went viral really quickly there.
So I posted a couple of videos of Mackenzie on TikTok and it went pretty well. The first one got 75,000 views. People were like, “Do you have any more videos?” And I was like, “I’ve been taking videos of her in my parents’ basement with me for an entire year and sending them to my friends. So yeah, I’ve got tons.” Meanwhile, she was learning to go on adventures and I was posting that progress as well.
How did you get the idea for My Grandfather’s Cat?
Mackenzie is a very unique name for a cat, so people started asking, “Why did you name your cat Mackenzie?” And I said, “She’s my grandfather’s cat. I didn’t name her. I took her when he passed away.” People started sharing their stories about how their grandparents’ cats ended up in a shelter when they passed away and there was no one to take them, or how their grandparents are worried about their cats or trying to write them into their will to make sure they can find a home.
I work in marketing for a nonprofit, so I’m very used to finding people resources. If we can’t help, I find the resources that can help them. So it’s just in my nature. I was thinking, “Oh, there’s got to be something there. Everything exists already.” But nothing really existed. And I just started thinking about it. Again, I was in my parents’ basement; we went into another lockdown and I was just bored out of my mind. I was like, Why doesn’t this exist? It’s just marketing — you put it out there, you create a network, you reach out to people and you help them find their pets. It’s so easy. I could do this.
And you did.
I don’t know if it was the newfound confidence from getting a whole 10k TikTok followers at the time or what it was, but I had convinced myself that I could start this. I’m used to volunteering quite a bit, but I couldn’t do that, being immunocompromised, so I thought this would be a great side hobby for me during the pandemic.
I got everything ready to go. I had the brand logo and the photos; I just needed a date to launch it. I was looking through my phone at dates and my grandfather’s birthday was a few weeks away. He loved his birthday and so did my grandmother, because that’s when all the family would come over. So I was like, That is the day. That is the day that has become such a sad day and we will make it a joyous day. So I launched it.
What was the initial reaction?
I had everything scheduled to go out around nine in the morning. I reached out to some local media contacts I knew to say, “Hi, can I be on the 8:30 morning show? Like, when everyone has gone to work and you need a fluff piece, can I be your fluff piece?” And they said yes. I made a TikTok and put it out, and then I went to work and kept going on with my day. I was in a four hour morning meeting, and when I came out of that meeting the TikTok had 8,000 views. At the time I was like, “Wow, that’s really good.” And then two hours later it had 80,000 views, and then 400,000, and then it hit two million and snowballed from there. The Instagram started taking off and people shared it to Facebook and the media started calling and I haven’t slept a full night since.
Did people reach out with cats for adoption right away?
Three days later, we got our first person that reached out and said, “Hey, can you help my cat? My mom passed away. I took her cat a couple of weeks ago. The cat doesn’t get along with my other cats, but I didn’t have the heart to put her in a shelter. I literally have her in my bathroom because I have no other way to divide her from the other animals.”
I posted it — I think I had 200 followers on Facebook and a couple thousand on Instagram. And people started applying. I had this very rough idea of the process that we would use, and I went through it and she got adopted a week later.
And we have to talk about your second adoptable — another who ended up becoming part of your family! How did you end up keeping him?
At the time, I didn’t really have a lot of stuff figured out — were we going to do foster homes? Were we not? Back then, our emergency foster was just me; I had moved out into my own apartment. If we needed somebody, I was like, “Well, they can stay with me.” At that time, I had split custody of Mackenzie with my parents who had fallen in love with her. I was on the evening news and a senior called me and he was like, “I’m moving into a retirement home this weekend. I have a 14-year-old barn cat. I just can’t leave him behind. I’m selling my home; I don’t know what to do.”
I found a family very, very quickly for him. The senior said he couldn’t drive the distance to drop him off. This was just in my community because I was on our local evening news, so I said, “Oh, I can drive him for you. That’s no big deal.” So I went and picked him up and took him to the new family and they immediately said no. They looked at him and said he wasn’t a fit. So then I sat in my car with this big orange cat and I cried. I was like, “What am I going to do? I have this man’s cat.” I told him what was going on and he said, obviously, he couldn’t take him back. So I said I’d foster him until I found a family.
Famous last words.
Exactly. He came home with me and curled up beside me and slept in my arm for the night. I found a family the next day in this beautiful house on a lake — like, I wish this family could have adopted me. I dropped him off to this wonderful, beautiful family that had two young kids, and he hid under the couch for two days. The mom called me and was terrified that it wouldn’t work, so I went over and called his name and he came right out from under the couch to curl up into my arms. She said, “I think he’s meant to be with you.”
I brought him home and let him out of his carrier and he went right back to the bed and slept in my arms that night. I put his profile back up; I told myself I’d give him a week to get settled and have some stability. We had nine wonderful families apply, and they all would have been a perfect fit. I called the senior and told him, and he goes, “I think he likes you.” And after a week of having him, I knew I couldn’t live without him. So now his name is Bo; he’s fourteen and he’s the sweetest boy in the world, and he still cuddles with me every night. I love him so much.
Were you worried at the time — like, oh, this is just going to turn into me becoming a cat hoarder?
One hundred percent. I was like, I’m going to end up with so many cats. It actually helped me learn through the process. Bo made me realize these people have to be in communication with each other. They need to have conversations. If I’m the middleman, it isn’t going to work so well. Right now, we have people who facilitate the adoptions, but we have the senior actually interview the people themselves. It creates another level of vetting, and the senior ultimately chooses who to adopt. We do have emergency fosters set up, but only in the event that someone passes away.
My Grandfather’s Cat has done so much good since then. What did it feel like when the adoptions started going through?
I had this moment when the very first girl called me. She’s like, “Yeah, I chose someone. We found a home.” I remember I was driving and I pulled over on the side of the road and I just cried. I bawled my eyes out because I had this realization that this is going to work. This stupid little idea I had in my parents’ basement was going to work.
Since then it’s become so much bigger than me and my grandfather’s cat hanging out on the beach on a Friday night, thinking this could maybe be a side hobby. This is a national registered charity. We operate across Canada. We have 15 volunteers. We’ve done 44 adoptions in one year. We were in People magazine. I mean, it’s out of control in the best way possible.
And we’re creating so much awareness. So many people tell us that they’re adopting senior cats because of Mackenzie, and they’re like, “I’ve overlooked senior cats but now I want to adopt a senior cat” or “I want to adopt a Calico because they’re spicy.”
Do you have anything you want to leave our readers with?
Mackenzie and my friendship started out of pure love. It was love for my grandparents, and it became love for Mackenzie. And that’s turned into love for seniors and their cats, and creating awareness for the importance of the relationships between seniors and their cats, and the value a senior cat can bring to your life. Because Mackenzie started going on adventures at fifteen years old. It just shows that life has value at any age. There’s love at any age; you can learn so much at any age.
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Sio Hornbuckle is a writer living in New York City with their cat, Toni Collette.