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Sunday, October 29, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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RANNY GREEN

Lucky, the one-eyed wonder, is rare feline winner of Delta Therapy Pet of the Year

Times pet columnist

He was the runt of the litter and a long-shot survivor. In fact, the other two died within a week after delivery. The left side of his face was undeveloped, leaving him with a cleft palate, a crooked stub of a tail and only one eye.

Plus, his walk was uncoordinated, which left owner Donna Francis of Sherman, Texas, fearing the kitten also had brain damage. Add to the list a serious upper-respiratory infection, stemming from inhaling liquid through his cleft nose that necessitated twice-daily breathing treatments at a veterinary hospital.

In other words, Francis was assuming a tiny project of mammoth medical proportions.

It didn't faze her, however, so she named the tiny, charismatic creature Lucky. Now, Lucky is in good health and his veterinary visits are only twice a year.

Lucky was born to a 16-year-old barn cat (who had lost her previous litters) who belonged to Francis' parents.

"My parents and I thought about putting him to sleep, but he was a happy-go-lucky kitten. He would follow us everywhere. He was much more interested in people than in his own mother. Lucky was just happy to be alive. I don't know if I named him Lucky because he was happy-go-lucky, because he was lucky to be alive or because I was lucky to have him."

Lucky and his dedicated owner have come a long way since those days three years ago. So far, in fact, the cat was named one of two Therapy Animals of the Year at the Delta Society annual conference in Boston earlier this month.

This is an award that usually goes to a dog. In fact, the co-winner was a canine.

Francis teaches hearing-impaired children and Lucky comes along weekly to help. Special lessons and writing contests starring Lucky help motivate the children to learn and participate.

"Lucky's most important job," emphasizes Francis, "is teaching the children and others about accepting differences, their own and those of other people, as well."

Before Lucky, the youngsters would have a three-word sentence to describe something. With Lucky, they write four to five sentences."

Lucky's success is best reflected by one of Francis' hearing-impaired students, Aireul Allison, who went home one day and described the 13-pound cat in detail: "He has only one eye, but that's OK, Daddy. He's different, just like me."

Francis emphasizes that Lucky's most important job is teaching the elementary-school students about accepting differences and developing self-esteem.

"Lucky has written his autobiography that we use when we go to many classrooms. Lessons about differences have brought up questions about deformities, as well."

Lucky's impact isn't limited to children. He visits the Reba McEntire Center for Rehabilitation in Denison, about 15 miles from Sherman.

"The residents can't wait until I bring him along," says Francis. "If I stop by without him, the first thing they ask is, `Where's Lucky?'

"He loves to lay on the bed and receive loving caresses from the residents. The patients and the staff enjoy seeing a cat walking on a leash down the halls of the center. He really is a breath of fresh air for all of them."

Lucky has a built-in mechanism for knowing how much time a client needs. "Normally he is very obedient and a slight tug on the leash tells him it is time to move on to the next client. Usually he obeys. Occasionally, he doesn't.

"It never fails that a nurse or family member will come and tell me how much that client really needed that visit. We visited a male patient who had a stroke and couldn't talk. He was reluctant to pet Lucky, but once he started he couldn't stop. Lucky and the man really seemed to be bonding. The nurses said that this client usually didn't interact with anyone."

Francis recalled a special moment at the center. "A nurse came and got me out of a patient's room. Another patient was upset because we had skipped her room - she was asleep at the time - and she heard the cat was visiting. She really wanted to see Lucky, so by the time the nurse reached me from the other end of the center, the woman was out of bed, in her wheelchair and rolling down the hallway to be certain she got to see Lucky. She took one long look at him and said, `My goodness . . . He's worse off than we are.' "

The onetime runt was recently faced with a problem of another kind - obesity. He was placed on a diet after reaching 15 pounds and has managed to lose a couple of them.

His gait, or special swagger, was discovered to be not due to brain damage, but likely from some type of internal deformity that resulted in him being "bottom heavy," according to his veterinarian, who also predicted the cat probably would not live longer than a year.

Lucky has worked his magic on Francis as well. "I used to be a shy person with low self-esteem," she says. "Lucky came into my life a few months after my grandfather died. I became very depressed and didn't want to go anywhere. Then, along came Lucky.

"He and Abbie (her toy poodle and certified therapy dog) got me out of my shell and kept me from becoming a hermit. I couldn't very well coop them up in an apartment when they loved visiting so much, so I visited local nursing homes for their sake."

Francis says she would never have dreamed of going up to strangers and beginning a conversation. Eventually, Lucky helped her break down that social barrier.

"I have so much to give and Lucky has shown me how fun and rewarding it is to give of myself and visit clients. He has shown me I can make a difference and that I have a purpose in this world."

Recently, McEntire, the famed country singer, left a card and a basket with a beautiful pillow for Francis and Lucky. The card read:

"Dear Donna and Lucky: Thank you so much for all the good work you do in brightening people's lives. I wish I could be there in person to tell you how much I appreciate all you have done for the people in the rehab center. You are both angels. God bless you."

Incredible success

The Seattle Mariners were a huge success on the field, but their off-the-field performance with Canine Companions for Independence, headquartered in Santa Rosa, Calif., left both organizations an even bigger winner.

Fifteen players attended a photo shoot in June - some with their own dogs, some with CCI animals - for a first-time 2001 calendar offering.

Because 15 Mariners took time to participate, designer/co-photographer Terri Smith of Redmond, CCI's lead Northwest puppy trainer, said there was no question the calendar would include 15 months.

It was introduced at a Seattle-Cleveland game at Safeco Field Aug. 11, and became an instant "hit."

The first 10,000 sold out and another 10,000 have since been printed, according to Smith. Altogether 10,151 have been sold, meaning $101,000-plus has been raised for the nonprofit organization that provides highly trained assistance dogs to recipients in need.

Calendars are available at Mariners team stores in the area for $10 and from the team's Web site www.mariners.org (home and office section).

For each $10,000 raised through sales of the calendar, CCI will be able to match a child with a fully trained assistance dog.

Dog friendly Seattle hotels

If you have an out-of-town, dog-owning friend who is eager to visit but is concerned about lodging for his/her pet, here are a couple of options.

The Alexis Hotel, 1007 First Ave., Seattle, offers an amenity called the "Deluxe Doggie Upgrade," in which each guest traveling with pets can receive an upgrade to any guest room for an additional $25.

The package includes a keepsake water bowl and distilled water during the stay, complimentary pet treats and a copy of the "Seattle Dog Lovers Companion." A designer doggie bed will also be placed in the guest room, and best of all, the dog will receive a morning and afternoon walk by an Alexis bellman.

And it gets better. If your pet is hungry or stiff from a walk, you can order him or her a bite from the Doggie Room Service Menu or phone a masseuse who specializes in the treatment of pets.

For more information, call 206-624-4844.

The Hotel Edgewater, 2411 Alaskan Way, also welcomes dogs and cats. Pets stay free in their own guest room and upon arrival receive a complimentary gourmet pet treat and special hotel keepsake. Grooming and pet day-care services are also available at Central Bark upon request.

The hotel plans to select its own doggie mascot in the near future. For more information, call 206-728-7000, or visit the Web site at www.nobelhousehotels.com.

Word makes Guinness

Word, the Lhasa Apso incarcerated at the Seattle Animal Control shelter for more than seven years, has been officially recognized as a Guinness World Records record holder for being held on doggie death row for the longest time.

Mitzi Leibst of Seattle, one of several attorneys for the dog's owner, Wilton Rabon, received a copy of the certificate recently.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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