Reporter Michelle Blade speaks to Cats Protection volunteer Julie Wilding about her work raising awareness of disabled cats
Looking after cats with a disability or terminal illness is a difficult thing for anyone to do but for Julie Wilding it’s her life’s work.
She recently lost a very special quadriplegic cat called Sir Toby Toblerone who used to enjoy a very unusual hobby.
Toby they found out particularly liked trains and he and owner Stephen were familiar faces among the train spotters on Platform Three at Lancaster railway station.
Such was the feline’s popularity Julie set up a Facebook page in his honour which gained thousands of followers around the world and locally earning him cult status among cat lovers.
Sir Toby was also featured in a special report from BBC Lancashire at the railway station.
Julie wanted to raise awareness of adopting disabled cats by detailing Toby’s adventures on Facebook.
Julie, 53, who lives with her husband Stephen on Westbourne Place in Lancaster, explains: “We joined Cats Protection in January 2014 and we had only been volunteering for a few months when Toby came along. He was found in November 2013 in a garden in Lancaster.
“A lady phoned Cats Protection and said she had found this cat who couldn’t move. His back legs were paralysed but he could drag himself along with his front feet.
“He was taken to the vets and X-rayed but nothing was broken. We were asked, ‘do you fancy giving him a go? With me suffering from ill health it was good for someone to be at home with him. So we took it from there.
“Neither of us realised the extent of his disability. His front paws had seized up and we were still under the impression that he was paralysed from the waist down. He was quadriplegic when he came to us. It was a huge shock.
“He was six months old when they found him and he celebrated his first birthday when he came to us. He did calm down and he was like a new cat. This little person came out. He loved being cuddled and brushed and we could tell there was something there worth carrying on with. We would do physio on him in the hope to straighten his front paws but they were seized up.
“Toby found his way of communicating with us. We knew what he wanted and learned what he needed. You have to be patient and persevere. He wasn’t in pain but none of the mobility came back. We just got on with it and fell in love with him.”
It was his lack of mobility which lead to the Wildings discovering his unusual interest, as Stephen explains: “We thought he might like a walk so we wrapped him in a blanket and walked to the top of the street with him.
“I was going past the train station one night, which is near our house, because it was quiet for him. Just as we were walking past a train pulled out and his little head turned round and he was quite interested.
“We walked there a few times and he reacted the same way. His little eyes were like ‘what is that?’ We got to going on the platform and he would take it all in. He was hooked.”
Julie continues: “We weren’t train spotters who took Toby along, we knew nothing about trains.
“He was so interested and it sparked his brain into gear. We kept that going, with little walks, introducing him to different sights and smells.
“If we saw a huge digger or lorry and they made a noise he would react. It was amazing really.
“I started the Facebook page to educate people and to let them know that having a disabled cat is not necessarily a death penalty.”
Julie suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and vasculitis, and agoraphobia and often needs a mobility scooter to get around.
She says: “My arthritis has been bad for two years now. My health has gone downhill. Toby kept me company, he needed me to be around and that was great for me because I was never lonely.
“I didn’t go out a lot before Toby, taking him out did help my confidence. He used to love going out for a ride on my mobility scooter which I called Juby2.
“He was my therapy. He came along when I’d lost our cat Brian. We just were meant to be together. It all fell into place. Toby needed us and we needed him. I wouldn’t have done half the things I did without Toby.”
Stephen, 60, a teaching assistant at Dallas Road Primary School for 17 years, says: “I’d gone into town one day and I saw a teacher I was working with in town and she said she was sure the children would love to meet him. We arranged it and got the children sat down and had a question and answer session. It was very good and we did that every year for four years.”
Julie says: “I saw it as if children learned about disabled cats they might be kind to disabled kids, it might make them more accepting.”
Sadly, Toby died in April this year aged five.
Julie says: “Everyone was amazed that he lived as long as he did. A donation page that someone set up for Toby after he died raised £3,000 for charity.
“For a little cat to raise so much money is amazing. We knew people loved him, he had 7,000 followers on Facebook. The outpouring of grief when he died was completely overwhelming and still to this day I’m overwhelmed by the gifts, cards and messages I received from America, Australia, New Zealand, Europe.
“I don’t think we realised what Toby meant to people. Just his Facebook post coming up made people less lonely. He must have had an impact, people have said they will never forget him. Toby was a mascot at Lancaster train station. Two Virgin employees, Keith and Scott, have pushed to get a bench for him on the station platform.
“They are paying for the bench themselves and the bench will be there at Lancaster train station on Platform Three in the next few weeks. It does hurt like hell that Toby is not here but we feel the lucky ones. We got to be his mum and dad. There will never be another Toby.”
Julie and Stephen have adopted cats for years and adopted a cat called Brian even though he had feline AIDS (FIV). Julie says: “We became quite passionate for FIV cats and feral cats that need a chance. Toby came after that.”
Julie and Stephen now have two cats, Nigel and Hattie. Julie is the volunteer treasurer for Cats Protection Lancaster and Morecambe and Stephen is also a volunteer.
Julie says: “It’s kitten season at the moment and things are pretty bad. There are loads of kittens and pregnant cats needing our help. One of our main aims at Cats Protection is to publicise neutering and microchipping your cat. Please get your cats microchipped at the same time as neutering. It’s relentless and never seems to get any better.
“Vets bills cost us £3,000 a month and we never let a cat suffer. We trap, neuter and return feral strays. We get three or four phone calls a day from people wanting to give cats up.
“We’d take in every single one but we just can’t. There are bins in Sainsbury’s in Lancaster and Morecambe to leave food for the cats. Donations of food are very welcome.
“If anyone wants to hold a fundraiser or wants more information or wants to join us, they can call 01524 850112.”
There is an 80s disco at the Strathmore Hotel in Morecambe on August 17, 7pm-midnight to raise funds for Cats Protection Lancaster and Morecambe. The cost is £15 per person including a hot pot supper. Call Liz on 07428 492967 for tickets.
Toby still has a Facebook page called ‘In Memory of Sir Toby Toblerone’ for more about him.