When you’ve been through something difficult, sometimes it can be hard to find other people who can empathize. Karolyn Smith, an army veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and a spine injury, found that understanding in an unlikely source: a disabled kitten named Sophia. Their pet and veteran success story is unlike any other.
“When I picked her up, I knew she would understand what I was personally going through: being different,” Smith said.
Combat and Coming Home
Smith enlisted in the army in 2002 at the age of 29. She was deployed to Iraq in 2004 as a machine gunner. During her time overseas she witnessed car bombings and roadside bombings. Her lieutenant was shot and killed right beside her. She saw hundreds of people of all ages murdered by extremists.
Five years after leaving the army, she realized she needed help. She couldn’t maintain relationships and was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was in a very deep, dark hole,” she explained. “The horror I saw changed my perspective…I became determined in whatever I was doing to stop the ‘highlight reel’ of deaths that played in my head…every time I would drive I was certain my vehicle would blow up since I’d been hit so many times.”
A Match Made on Facebook
Smith found Sophia on the San Diego Humane Society’s Facebook page. Sophia was rescued alone in a field at eight days old with her umbilical cord wrapped around her leg. She was malnourished and unprotected. The Humane Society had to amputate Sophia’s foot, but she didn’t recover right away. So the nurses found Leonidas, a male kitten from a different litter, and put him in Sophia’s enclosure. The two kittens bonded, and their connection helped Sophia recover.
When Smith saw Sophia and Leonidas’ picture on the Humane Society’s Facebook page, the veteran was immediately drawn to them.
“[Sophia] has this very striking face where it looks as though God dipped his finger in ink and ran it down her nose,” Smith said.
And Then There Were Three
When Smith approached the Humane Society about adopting the two kittens, she was told there was something wrong with Sophia because the kitten was an amputee. But Smith didn’t see this as a problem. The three of them bonded instantly.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship. Sophia and Leo helped Smith heal and share her story, and Smith helped Sophia with her leg.
In 2015, Smith partnered with a volunteer tech lab to create a detachable 3D-printed prosthetic for Sophia. According to Smith, the prosthetic is the first of its kind. The team is still in the prototype phase, trying to make their project better, but Sophia has her prosthetic leg. Smith and Sophia are now bionic buddies—Sophia because of her leg and Smith because of biotech in her spine.
Smith hopes that her story will help start a better conversation about how to lower veteran suicide rates. Since sharing about how her kittens helped her deal with her experiences in Iraq, Smith has gotten emails from amputees who have been inspired to find new and more fulfilling lives. Her own cats continue to make her life better.
“Nothing replaces a child,” she explained, saying that her childbearing years passed while she was recovering. “But I’m able to give [Sophia and Leo] the same love and attention while they are helping me create a conversation with the outside world.”
PetMio would like to thank Smith for her service: not only for her time overseas, but for the work she continues by sharing her story. You can read about this pet and veteran success story in Smith’s book, Sophia the Bionic Cat. To find out more about the book or about how to meet Smith, Sophia and Leonidas, visit 3pawsup.com.