Changing the false stigmas about black cats requires patience, knowledge and a lot of love
"Black cat" by @Doug88888 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Black cats. For centuries, they've been the target of conflicting reputations. Some say they're bad luck. Others—sailors and actors, most notably—wouldn't dream of launching a ship or a theater production without at least one dark-furred kitty along for the ride.

Superstition aside, Leah Lyman--owner of Jagger's Journey Cat Rescue in Oregon—simply finds them beautiful. She devotes her life to fostering and finding permanent homes for abandoned black cats and kittens. "I rescue them all, but black cats are my top priority," she says. "Some people are still ignorant about them. The phobia's out there."



In early October, I didn't need another cat. I had two indoor kitties, plus a barn cat outdoors. But I walked into Petsmart in Springfield, Oregon with my 13-year-old daughter and stopped in front of three cages of black kittens and cats on a table. Lyman stood beside them wearing a tee that read "Rich people have brand logos on their shirts. Happy people have cat hair on their shirts." I introduced myself, trying not to look at the silky four-month old kitten next to me—a carbon copy of my late lamented Alger Hiss.

Over 17 years, first as a volunteer with other rescue organizations and then as founder of her own non-profit, Lyman has pulled wet filthy kittens from canals, rescued flea-infested dehydrated felines, and set her alarm to bottle-feed orphans every four hours around the clock. Last year, she found a cat suffering from a broken jaw, with glue smeared in its eyes and nostrils. "He was nearly dead, but I rushed him to the vet who repaired his jaw and used mineral oil to remove the glue," Lyman recalls. She syringe-fed the cat, whom she named Damien, and found him a loving permanent home with an elderly woman and her grandson.


Leah Lyman and Jagger, photo courtesy of Rich Cassady Photography


She traces her passion for helping abused animals back to a Southern California childhood spent with an alcoholic father who abused her mother and their pets. The family moved often. "We always had a bunch of animals that I was attached to and we always had to get rid of them or leave them behind," she explains. "I developed a strong bond with them, regardless."

After high school, she worked as a show girl in Las Vegas before returning to California. Seventeen years ago, she was volunteering at a Gurrs and Purrs adoption event in Rosemead when someone walked in with a black kitten locked a birdcage. "They'd been keeping him on their front lawn," she says. "He had a bad respiratory infection, and he was covered in ear mites. We picked off all the mites, and he followed me everywhere. He was the best little cat I'd ever met."

The cat, Jagger, moved to Oregon with her and an older black kitty 13 years ago, and became the inspiration for her rescue organization. "I saved up all my bartending tips for four years to hire a non-profit lawyer," she says. "Now I've got a circle of people I trust—foster parents, adoption event staff, and an amazing trapper who works with feral cats and kittens. Cats are my world."

Jagger's Journey is one of a handful of organizations across the country that specializes in black cat rescue and adoption. There's also Black Cat Rescue in Boston, and Black Cat Holistic Rescue in Los Angeles. The women behind each agree that cats can be difficult to place in permanent homes. They don't always show to advantage in adoption pictures, unless they're photographed in natural light or brightly lit indoors. And superstition--as Lyman points out--persists. "Black cats are less likely to be adopted than other cats," she says, "though when the movie Black Panther came out, everyone wanted them for a while."

But that trend has slowed. And so, every Saturday, her cadre of foster parents bring cages of rescued black kittens and cats to an Oregon PetSmart, and she displays them on tables for shoppers to consider adopting. She's there to answer questions and help potential cat-parents through the application process.

She answers all of my daughter's questions about the silky black kitten, and then—when I allow that we probably have room in our home and our hearts for another cat—she interviews me extensively about our current pets and our veterinarian and my plans for the kitten if I unexpectedly ascend to that great litterbox in the sky.

"People are starting to consider the underdog," she says as she approves my completed application and congratulates my daughter on the acquisition of a new friend. "This a lot of work," she says, "but on the flip side, I see more and more people opening their hearts to black cats."

Melissa Hart is a writer based in Oregon and the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash

Gem is living her best life.

If you've ever dreamed of spontaneously walking out the door and treating yourself a day of pampering at a spa without even telling anyone, you'll love this doggo who is living your best life.

According to CTV News, a 5-year-old shepherd-cross named Gem escaped from her fenced backyard in Winnipeg early Saturday morning and ended up at the door of Happy Tails Pet Resort & Spa, five blocks away. An employee at the spa saw Gem at the gate around 6:30 a.m. and was surprised when they noticed her owners were nowhere to be seen.

"They were looking in the parking lot and saying, 'Where's your parents?'" said Shawn Bennett, one of the co-owners of the business.

The employee opened the door and Gem hopped right on in, ready and raring to go for her day of fun and relaxation.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."