Purrrfect Touch – Cat Whisperer Works Magic With Shelter Cats


By Michelle Meehan Schrader

The card attached to the blue-grey feline’s cage states the basics: Name: Little Girl. Age: 4 years. Spayed and up-to-date on shots.  There is no room on the card for Little Girl’s backstory.  But Nelson Barazza, aka The Cat Whisperer, knows it by heart.

“I have pictures of her the first day she came here,” says Nelson, whipping out his cellphone. “Look. You can see in her eyes how stressed she was. She just lay in her litter box, peering out, so afraid.”

What a difference a few weeks makes. When Little Girl hears Nelson’s voice, she looks up with big yellow eyes. The Cat Whisperer opens her cage and rubs her furry head. She purrs and leans into his hand.

“I’ve been working with her,” Nelson, 68, a retired Marriott Hotel banquet captain from Belleville, explains. “She is such a good girl. I know she will find a home soon.”

Like the cat, Nelson has a backstory: A former political prisoner, he fled to the United States from Chile in 1977 with the help of Human Rights International and the Lutheran Church.

“I don’t talk much about those days,” says Nelson, who quietly volunteers at the shelter three days a week. “There were people in the concentration camp with me who were killed or disappeared.  I was one of the lucky ones. I believe I survived for a reason.”

More often than not, that reason purrs and walks on four legs.

“See, here are the kittens I rescued from the woods in my backyard,” he says, thumbing through more photos on his cellphone. “I kept the mother cat, Lola, and I brought the kittens here.”

Nelson’s pal wound up adopting one of the kittens – a chubby boy named Bear. Another kitten, Lulu, also found a home.

“Buddy was the last one left of the litter,” Nelson remembers. “I would come to the shelter and visit him. I could tell from looking in his eyes, he was depressed.  I took a picture of him and sent it to my wife. She let me bring him back home.”

Nelson’s ability to connect with felines is what earned him the nickname The Cat Whisperer.

“The cats that come in that are tense, or scared or aggressive ― the ones that are afraid and just don’t want you to touch them – he works with them,” shelter employee Amanda Graham explains. “He is wonderful. He’s just a very kind, gentle man.”

Not to mention patient.

“When I process the cats, if they’re too scared, I talk to them, so they hear my voice,” Nelson explains. “After a while ― when they’re ready to let me ― I put my hand in and pet them. Lots of times when they’re here, they might be coming from a bad situation. I don’t know what kind of trauma they went through.”

But he knows he can help calm their fears.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life to find my calling,” Nelson says, as Little Girl peers out of her cage. “I believe strongly in a higher power. I believe I was meant to be here to help these cats. It’s not about me. It’s about them.

“We humans have the ability to help each other and to help the animals. I think that’s why God put us here. To help the ones that can’t help themselves.”

Nelson Barazza discusses his philosophy about cats.

Go, Gideon, go! – Pooch rescues woman who saved him


By Michelle Meehan Schrader

When Ronea Diekemper was down with a cold, her four-legged nursemaid – a rescued Australian shepherd mix named Gideon – bounded over to her bedside every time she coughed.

“He was worried about me,” Ronea, 37, of Belleville, recalled. “When I got up to eat, he followed me into the kitchen. He was being quiet. Just keeping an eye on me.”

Till being quiet was no longer an option. “A few minutes into my meal, I started choking. I couldn’t cough. I couldn’t breathe. There was no way I could talk. That’s when Gideon went crazy.”

Sensing his master was in trouble, the 80-pound pooch began barking and howling at the top of his lungs. The racket prompted a woman in a nearby apartment to check on Ronea – an act that likely saved her life.

“My neighbor performed the Heimlich maneuver on me,” Ronea said. “But she never would have known to help me if it hadn’t been for Gideon. Someone at church told me that, when translated, the name Gideon means ‘Man of Valor.’ It fits him to a tee.”

As does his new life with Ronea. Rescued by BAHS from St. Clair County Animal Control last spring, Gideon tested heartworm positive and had to undergo treatment to save his life. A BAHS volunteer, Ronea offered to foster the dog, bringing him home to convalesce.

“I suffer from PTSD, depression and major anxiety disorder,” Ronea explained, “and my therapist suggested I volunteer at the shelter as part of my therapy. It’s hard for me to trust people. But not animals. I’ve always loved animals.

“Then I fostered Gideon and within two days of him being here, I knew he had the gifts to help me with my disabilities. He seems to know exactly when an anxiety attack, or a flashback or a night terror is going to happen. He jumps up and gives me a Gideon-type hug. Or he’ll lick my face and paw at me.”

Though her apartment complex doesn’t allow dogs, an exception was made for Gideon, who presently is taking classes to earn service dog certification.

On a recent fall afternoon, the heroic pooch laid on Ronea’s living room floor, next to two laundry baskets overflowing with dog toys. He chewed on a purple sock monkey, stretching out his hind legs in what Ronea calls “his frog position.”

“He makes me feel better just being around him,” she said, proudly patting his furry grey head.

“I helped save him but then he helped save me. It’s really a question of who rescued whom.”

Ronea Diekemper poses with her hero, Gideon.