Friday, May 29, 2009

The Incomprehensible Loss of Kari Winters

How does anyone describe the loss of a much-loved friend? How does anyone describe someone who did so much for cats, dogs and people that her work can never be placed in truly solid numbers? My heart aches and the world is a sadder and lonelier place for dogs, cats and people with the news that Kari Winters was found dead in her home on Tuesday, May 19th. Kari was the most amazing person yet had no sense of her own accomplishments. Her modesty was another of her special qualities.
An award-winning writer and author she was amazed when she received her first Muse Medallion from the Cat Writers’ Association. She was even more astonished to receive a special award for her writing from the ASPCA. She was over the moon when she received one from Cornell University, presented by their esteemed feline specialist, Dr. Jim Richards who, himself, died too young, for an important piece on Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) that was published in “The Pet Press,” a small Southern California publication. (You can read that article, and more, at her website:
Kari was responsible for Siamese Cat Rescue in Southern California and helped with Siamese Rescue throughout the U.S. She was an avid volunteer for The Amanda Foundation, helping rehabilitate and rehome countless cats and dogs; several found their way into Kari’s home as permanent family members. She always credited Teri Austin with teaching her the basics, but she took those basics and ran with them as only a truly gifted person can. She had a magical touch with them. A chosen few have a special gift for rehabilitating special needs animals. Kari was one of those people. Her ability to help dog after dog, cat after cat, was more than impressive yet very few knew about this because she was entirely too modest. Kari had the patience and the love to gain their trust and turn them around. Whatever problems they had developed from unknown situations before finding their way into rescue, Kari could change their lives, taking something broken and making it whole.
What Kari Winters did was remarkable. And she didn’t just help animals. An advanced practice psychiatric nurse, she was invariably assigned to difficult cases because she had a way of reaching those people.
Kari was diagnosed with thyroid cancer about 5 years ago. That was the beginning of a series of health problems. A fall led to a back injury and surgery led to sepsis from which she amazingly recovered, however it also left her with excruciating back pain that traveled down her leg making it impossible at times for her to function. She never quite knew when the pain would force her to cancel plans with friends. It certainly meant that she often couldn’t drive because she didn’t feel it was safe to be on the road and she didn't want anyone else to be at risk of injury. The impact of her illness forced her to retire from her nursing career, which had meant so much to her. She could no longer live in her beloved California home because of the State’s outrageous cost of living.
About three years ago, she moved with her assorted four-legged family to Albuquerque. She did not take to retirement. Even though she couldn’t work she threw herself into volunteering for Kennel Kompadres, and other local rescue organizations, doing what she could with her limited physical abilities, while still running Southern California Siamese Cat Rescue via e-mail and phone for nearly a year after her move. She was a major fund-raiser for the Mayor’s Dog Ball in Albuquerque. Once she saw what they were trying to do, she immediately phoned Albuquerque Animal Services the day after the Ball and asked how she could help Kennel Kompadres.
Kari took in rescues, usually one at a time. And then there was a mother and her litter of puppies that Kari helped to raise and rehome, each one carefully socialized. Helping her in this endeavor was her darling Kobi, one of her Oriental Shorhair cats. Kobi co-parented the litter and those puppies learned to purr before they learned to bark.

Six months ago a small elderly black dog needed a permanent foster home, it was Kari who took on the responsibility and expense of his veterinary care and she did an amazing job of rehabilitating the nearly shutdown little dog she named Bucky after a favorite comic strip dog. Every new accomplishment became a cause for celebration especially when, wonder of wonders he kissed her!
Kari helped her human friends as well. She was the first one to reach out, to lend an ear, a shoulder, to encourage. She was so supportive of her friends.
It’s probably fair to say that no one will ever be able to count how many cats, dogs and people Kari Winters helped. A thousand would probably be a conservative estimate. She didn't keep count. But was happy when, even years later, adopters would get in touch to tell her how much they loved their cat or dog and to let her know how they were doing.
Her sense of humor and her infectious laugh will also be sorely missed.
Kari was beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. Most people had no idea that she had been a model in Florida. And those who saw her courage when she received the Cornell award didn't realize what they were witnessing. Her body was outrageously bloated from the medication she had to take at the time. She had not only lost that bloating but additional weight in the past few months, wanting to appear at her best. Unfortunately, most of the pictures circulating now were taken at that CWA banquet. I'd prefer to show something else, something of the real Kari.
What most people didn’t see was how well she masked her almost constant pain. She bore it with grace and never resorted to painkillers except for a few days following a recent complex eye surgery to repair a detached and torn retina. That surgery was three weeks after a major back surgery. Confined to bed for weeks, unable to see because of the gas bubble that was put in her eye to help it heal, her sight was beginning to slowly return and she could put in a contact lens and go out for awhile. She could even drive. She was delighted to be able to do that again. Her last foray included buying a gift for the dog’s birthday party she planned to attend on Saturday. Early that day she told me that her leg felt wooden and she didn’t feel well. She told her long-time friend Gary, that she wasn’t feeling well, and left a voice mail message for the friend with whom she was going to lunch and the doggy birthday party, saying she didn’t feel well enough to attend.
We talked daily, usually multiple times, but on rare occasions we missed a day and then caught up. She would often phone me in the middle of the night. Often unable to sleep at night, she'd call me and, without preamble but with great humor she would say, "Is this the Open All Night Cafe?" Yes, I'd assure her that she had reached the right place and could I take her order? Sometimes sharing her pain, her frustration. I was one of the chosen few she’d tell how she was really feeling. I ached for her. But the best I could do was to be her friend, listen, offer whatever words I could to try to help.
When her cherished Kobi died of kidney failure at a year-and-a-half, perhaps a week after her eye surgery, she was utterly devastated. It was one more blow in a series of difficult events that would have been impossible to consider. She had a remarkable faith that never wavered but she felt pain and loss along with happiness. With each successful placement of a cat or dog in a new home, she rejoiced and had to share it. With each cat or dog she helped she found new happiness in each step forward.

She never gave herself much credit. Kari Winters did what she did out of love, never looking for compliments or verbal pats on the back. And so her accomplishments went largely unrecognized except by those who adopted one of the rescues who had been in her capable hands or those of us who knew her well and those who were involved in the rescue organizations for which she volunteered.
Kari Winters never really knew how many lives she touched, how much she was loved, how dearly she was treasured as a friend and how deeply she will be missed. She never wanted anyone to say that she lost her fight with cancer because she wasn't fighting. She didn't like it when people who never had anything nice to say when someone was alive would come out of the woodwork to talk about that person and praise them after they died. Kari was ethical, honest, compassionate and caring.
Heaven may have gained an angel but earth surely lost one.
It would be very much appreciated if you remembered Kari Winters with a donation specifically made in her memory, whatever its size, to Kennel Kompadres: Treasurer, Kennel Kompadres, 139 Palacio Road, Corrales, NM 87048.