A wheelchair for Wheelie — making a handicap cat walk again

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CLINTON — Wheelie may have had a rough start on life, but he’s off to a pretty speedy recovery.

The 4-month-old orange tabby was brought to Clinton Pet Vet Rescue & Sanctuary at 86 Meadow St. back in June by a local woman looking for assistance in caring for the animal. Wheelie is paralyzed and does not have use of his hind legs.

“A woman in Rome had him and we encouraged her to sign him over to us” so that he may be properly cared for, said Mare Clarey, director of operations at the sanctuary. “She said she got him from someone else” with a large litter of cats, “and didn’t know what happened to him. We think that someone may have sat on him when he was a small kitten, but we don’t know what happened for sure.”

When he grew large enough, the staff over at Clinton Pet Vet, 60 Dwight Ave., found a small wheelchair for Wheelie that was purchased online. The chair is meant to increase his mobility while Wheelie undergoes laser and water therapies each day at the vet clinic to help build strength and feeling in the lower part of his body.

“We got him the wheelchair and he’s been amazing, but we needed something that he could grow with,” Clarey said.

So Clarey said she thought to reach out to some local schools that could help with building Wheelie his own wheelchair, but they were already out on summer recess. Back in 2016, Chris Lallier’s technology students over at Oriskany Central School helped design and build a chair for Claire, a 4-month-old abused havanese puppy who was rescued from an Amish puppy mill.

So, Clarey said she contacted her brother who knew of some folks at Mohawk Valley Community College’s FABLab. He said they may be able to take on the task, and that they did.

“This is not unusual for us as far as the kind of projects we do,” said David Smith, technical assistant for the Physical Sciences, Engineering and Applied Technology departments at the college.

“We’ve had a busy summer with lots of summer camps and programs with high school kids, with students here for 6-8 weeks. So at this point, we’re just starting to put our heads together on it, and I’m sure we’ll go visit the sanctuary before we start,” he said.

The FABLab, where Wheelie’s chair will be developed, is a small-scale workshop comprised of industrial-grade fabrication equipment and electronic tools over at the MVCC Utica Campus. “It is a place for ideas, designs, innovations, inventions, and learning,” according to a description provided on the college’s website.

The FABLab concept is the brainchild of MIT professor, Dr. Neil Gershenfeld. The first FABLab was created in 2001 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). Gershenfeld’s goal for the FABLab was to create a laboratory to perform research on the practical applications on the many different technologies used for personal fabrication. Since that time, FABLabs have been started and developed worldwide.

The FABLab at MVCC is open to students, the community, and local businesses. The lab serves many different purposes, including: providing a place where students can design and build projects while being able to participate in all phases of standard production processes; providing local businesses with the latest design and rapid prototyping technologies to be able to develop new products and improve existing products for the market; giving community members an opportunity to learn the latest technologies and a place to develop their ideas or inventions; and providing central New York with a workforce that has been trained using the latest high-tech fabrication equipment and electronic tools.

Smith said the FABLab plans to get students involved in designing and manufacturing Wheelie’s wheelchair as long as it meets their schedules, with several projects of their own that will be due for their classes.

“Certainly if we have some capable students, we’ll get them involved and the timing is good in that way, as the semester will just be starting,” the technical assistant said. “Sometimes we’ll hire a student worker too. FABLab is very capable — we have production-level printers, and we’re getting even more equipment in.”

The development of Wheelie’s chair will be done in two stages, Smith said. First, technicians will think about and come up with designs, and then they will make the prototype.

“We’re one of best-equipped labs in the state for a two-year college and we even rival many four-year colleges,” Smith said. “The lab is getting a metal 3D printer — which is a quarter of a million dollar printer from GE (General Electric). We most likely won’t use the metal printer for the cat chair, but we have selections of nylon plastic, and things that can chop carbon fiber. We have lots of those options, and this project will show off our design skills and what the lab can do.”

“Plus, we just love kitties,” he chuckled.

So it may be at least another month or two before Wheelie gets his new, high-tech chair, but MVCC “has been very helpful and has agreed to work with us,” Clarey said.

In the meantime, Taylor Calhoun, veterinary technician, said she works with Wheelie daily in giving him his laser and water therapy sessions.

The therapy “helps him get more circulation in his joints so he can walk better,” Calhoun said. “We’ve definitely seen an improvement” in his mobility.

“In water therapy he kicks his back legs,” she said.

“And you see more movement in his tail now too,” Clarey added.

The sanctuary director of operations said when the woman who originally had Wheelie surrendered him to CPV, he was wearing a very soiled preemie infant diaper and had not been trained to use a litter box due to his injuries. Back then, Wheelie had absolutely no feeling or movement in his back legs, and he was unable to urinate on his own.

“Now he gets a bath every morning, and he loves water,” Calhoun said. “He meows every morning when he sees me.”

“He likes to play with the other kittens,” the vet tech added. “When the wheelchair is off he drags his hind legs, but he’s actually faster than many of the other cats.”

Wheelie could be seen ducking in and out of one of the cat houses and play towers over at the sanctuary, and was able to swiftly make his way underneath a scratching post as he snuck away from one of his rambunctious furry playmates. Sometimes the heavy chair will topple over on Wheelie as he aggressively plays, and Calhoun was there to tip it back upright.

“We have him in the chair just part of the day to get him used to it,” Clarey said. “He’s thrilled to get it on, but he doesn’t know how to turn it around quite yet.”

By using the chair, however, she said Wheelie has learned how to place his hind paws on the floor, rather than tucking them underneath him as he moves around.

Clarey and Calhoun said it will be some time before Wheelie is rehabilitated and ready for adoption. But Calhoun said she’s really appreciated all that she’s learned through caring for Wheelie.

“It really makes you know what goes into taking care of a kitten,” she smiled. “This has helped me learn what needs cats truly have.”

Clarey said it’s possible that Wheelie will eventually gain just about full, if not total, use of his hind legs. But he will need much more therapy and work, she said.

To help Wheelie make a full recovery, CPV Rescue & Sanctuary has set up a special fund-raising account for those who would like to support the feline’s progress. Those interested in making a donation may go to paypal.me/CPVsanctuary. For more information, contact CPV Rescue & Sanctuary at 315-381-3605.

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