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Mass. tornado-surviving kitten inspires community

By Kim Ring
Telegram &Amp; Gazette / April 29, 2012
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BRIMFIELD, Mass.—Paramedic Jonathan Hall has treated plenty of patients, but the tiniest of them has made the biggest impact on him, his family and perhaps even an entire tornado-ravaged town.

Toto was a 6-ounce kitten when he was rescued after the tornado last year. The gray-and-white cat has become a local celebrity, the protagonist of a children's book, a Facebook personality and an avid fundraiser for the Animal Rescue League of Boston. Without the help of the rescue league, the tiny kitten might not have survived.

It was June 2, 2011, the day after an EF3 tornado whipped past the home Hall and his wife, state Trooper Amy Waterman, share. After taking refuge in the basement, the couple made their way to the Brimfield Fire Station as soon as the storm passed to offer whatever assistance they could. They were feeling somewhat blessed because while the winds had brought down many trees in their yard, their home was mostly unscathed.

As rescue personnel and residents needing help passed through, a tree worker came in carrying a tiny kitten. He told emergency workers he'd plucked the little 6-ounce kitten from a tree branch.

"He was so small," Hall recalled. "We tried to feed him some milk but he wouldn't drink it. It was pretty obvious he needed more care."

The tornado affected hundreds of residents from Springfield to Southbridge and many of them had pets or large animals that needed care. The Animal Rescue League of Boston came to help and ended up taking the kitten, who'd been held by just about every police officer, firefighter and EMT that happened by. They called him Toto, after the dog from "The Wizard of Oz."

Even Wales Police Chief Dawn M. Charette, a cat lover whose allergies prevent her from having one at home, took a turn with the kitten.

"After what we saw out there, that kitten was like a symbol of hope," she said. "I saw guys, I mean big, tough cops, just break down when they saw that kitten."

There had been one death in Brimfield and dozens of people with injuries. Homes were leveled and people were in shock. Chief Charette said all of her training could not adequately equip her for that day and the days that followed. It was overwhelming.

"But I think we started thinking that if that cat would be OK, then maybe we'd all be OK, too," she said.

As time passed, homes were demolished and rebuilding started, Hall would, from time to time, wonder aloud about Toto.

"He'd just say, `I wonder how Toto's doing,' " Ms. Waterman said. "Our tenth anniversary was coming so I called the Animal Rescue League."

Toto had recovered nicely by then but was still too small to be adopted. He was in foster care, having been slipped in with a cat who'd recently had kittens and didn't seem to notice one more.

Ms. Waterman learned that Toto was pretty popular. He'd become a media star following the tornado and that meant a long list of people waiting to adopt him. She explained that she and her husband had been helping out when Toto was brought to the fire station; that they had four cats rescued from other situations and wanted to make Toto part of their family. She promised he'd have a great home. Her name was moved to the number one spot, and in August, Toto came home as a surprise to Hall.

The once tiny kitten shows few signs of the trauma he survived. His nose, which was banged up in the storm, needs some attention from a specialist and if he's out on his leash, the wind troubles him, otherwise he's a rambunctious yearling who enjoys tackling his housemates, including a smaller, shy kitten called Scooter. The couple's other cats don't seem too jealous of Toto's sparkly red collar -- like ruby red slippers -- and newfound fame.

While no one knows how far Toto traveled on the tornado's winds, he's been getting in some mileage in the car now, on a book tour for "Toto the Tornado Kitten," Hall's first book. He's been to the Holyoke Mall and on television, helping to sell the books. The proceeds are all donated to the Animal Rescue League, Hall said, adding that Country Bank for Savings gave Toto a substantial grant to cover the cost of the first printing of 2,000 books.

"They're taking 200 books to distribute to local schools and daycares in the affected areas," Hall said.

The books are available at http://www.totothetornadokitten.com and Toto's appearances are listed on his Facebook page.

Earlier this month, Hall was scheduled to be at Six Flags New England in Agawam where he works as a paramedic. Guests who brought a donation for the Animal Rescue League or the Dakin Shelter received a coupon for a $20.12 admission to the park and could visit the Kidzopolis stage for a reading of "Toto the Tornado Kitten."

A list of needed items for the shelters is online at http://www.sixflags.com and there may be a sighting of Toto, too.

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