We’re honored to spotlight our calendar-cover RescueMan Joe DiPaolo first in our blog because he’s the epitome of what our campaign is all about. He’s a life-long crusader who believes people and animals who are considered “different” should be loved and accepted just like anyone else.
Before we get to Joe’s fur-baby clan, his own history is important to know. He was born with a hole in his heart, and in 1984 at age four, underwent open-heart surgery. During the procedure, Joe lost a lot of blood and had to have a transfusion. Even though his heart was repaired, after the surgery, Joe kept getting sick with flu-like symptoms. Eventually doctors discovered he had been infected with the HIV virus during the transfusion.
In 1990 when Joe almost lost his life to sceptic shock, but recovered miraculously (doctors attributed his turnaround to the faith of his family), teen AIDS activist Ryan White passed away. At the time, Joe was devastated because he didn’t know who would educate the world about AIDS if Ryan were no longer here.
Soon after that Joe was about to enter junior high school, and over one hundred families protested to keep him out of school. They thought their children would contract the virus from Joe’s sweat in gym class or from sharing a water fountain with him. Suddenly Joe was thrown into the media and found himself wanting more than anything to educate people about the facts of contracting HIV. Still a kid, he started speaking at schools up and down the East Coast, and eventually started his own foundation and summer camp for teens with AIDS. His life and activism were even the focus of an HBO film titled “Blood Brothers: The Joey DiPaolo Story”.
Today, Joe is married, lives on Staten Island, owns a barber shop and works for the New York City Department of Sanitation. Having been an animal person as a kid, “I had everything from garden snakes to guinea pigs,” says Joe, he considered himself mainly a dog person. It was his wife Lauren who introduced him to how loving and affectionate cats can be. And soon after falling in love with Lauren, Joe fell in love with giving special-needs cats a loving home.
Meet His Brood:
LITTLEMAN, age 5
When Joe started dating Lauren, she had LittleMan or “Little”, who has CH (cerebellar hypoplasia), a neurological condition that affects his motor skills and balance. Lauren bottle fed Little for seven months, and they have treated him with B12 shots and acupuncture. “He has trouble walking but he can run for treats—he just doesn’t know how to stop!” says Joe. “He’s so gentle and he loves to be held. He’s a lover boy!”
MIKA, age 3
Joe found kitten Mika in the street. Her eyes were crusted shut, and she was covered in cuts and scrapes. Surprisingly, she didn’t run away from Joe when he approached her. She is blind in both eyes from an infection, but learned the layout of the house in no time and loves to run, jump, and play. “She’s putty in my hands! She’s a daddy’s girl,” says Joe proudly.
MAC, age 2
Joe and Lauren adopted Mac (“my little miracle boy”) from Cameron Animal Hospital in New Jersey. He has a cleft palate which leads to breathing complications and suffers from cardiomyopathy, a hardening of the arterial walls. After many, many vet visits, they almost lost Mac during surgery. But just like Joe, Mac had a miraculous turnaround and has already lived longer than doctors had anticipated.
LEELA, age 11 months
During a visit to the animal hospital where they found Mac, Joe and Lauren met Leela, who looks identical to Mac and is blind in one eye. “I ended up falling in love with her!” says Joe. He thought Leela and Mac would be like brother and sister, but he says they’re more like lovers. “Leela loves to lie in your lap and purr and purr. She’s very smart and tends to get into trouble!”
TANK, age 1
After our calendar shoot, beloved Tank crossed the rainbow bridge, and we dedicate this blog post in his memory. ❤️ Tank was a munchkin kitty who Joe and Lauren adopted from a friend who couldn’t keep him. He was only three pounds, had a rare heart defect called cor triatriatum, and walked bow-legged. One of the best things about Tank, says Joe, was that he didn’t have a care in the world, despite being sick and on meds. “He walked around like a tough guy with his chest out like he ruled the house, and we loved it!”
YOYO, age 3 months
In July, Joe saw an Instagram post of a tiny, blind ginger kitten scheduled to be put down the following morning. He ran to the shelter and insisted they hold off on euthanizing YoYo until a rescue could pull him. Fortunately one did—just a few blocks from Joe’s house. Joe and Lauren decided to foster YoYo and find him a forever home. However, when Tank passed, Mac didn’t handle the loss well, and they witnessed YoYo step up to comfort him. “YoYo started hanging out with Mac just as Tank would—he groomed him, played with him, and slept with him. There was a new spark in Mac’s eyes. I was sold…YoYo was home!”
This beautiful black kitten was found abandoned after an injury, missing her two hind feet and most of her tail. Joe and Lauren had their eyes on her since July, but didn’t have the capacity to adopt her since they had recently added Tank and Yoyo to their brood. After Tank passed and they saw that no one had adopted Selita, Joe and Lauren went to the rescue center to meet her and just knew she was meant to be theirs. “Despite her rough start in life, she is the sweetest and most loving cat I have ever met,” says Joe. “We chose the name Selita which means ‘a small piece of heaven’—and she absolutely is!”
With cats as amazing as these, it’s no wonder Joe’s and Lauren’s Instagram pics and videos quickly blew up (littleman_mika has over 100k followers currently). Joe finds Instagram a great medium for bringing awareness. “Special needs cats are being put down constantly. People will overlook them because they look different or have health issues,” says Joe. “Before we found Mac, people passed on adopting him because they thought he was ugly or sneezed too much. Turns out he’s the love of our lives and has so much love to give! Open up your eyes and your hearts—there are so many animals out there that need your help. The unconditional love they give back to you because you opened up your heart and your home to them is so amazing!”
Fun Fur Facts
Funniest thing one of the cats does?
“Leela can open doors! She jumps up and hangs on the doorknob. When the door swings open, she jumps down and walks out.”
Any nicknames for the cats?
“We call Little ‘Dough’ because he loves to knead the dough!”
Favorite thing to do with the cats?
“Cuddling, hands down. Often I’ll wake up after a nap on our love sac to find Little sleeping next to me, Leela on top of me, Mac above my head, Mika in the cat tree, Tank at my feet. All my cats are cuddlers. They love to love!”
How do your cats inspire you?
“Seeing Mac be such a fighter and have a will to survive—he reminds me that I’ve always been a fighter. Through the years, I’ve fought for rights, for education, for survival, to keep myself in school, to help teens with HIV feel they have a place in the world. Now I take care of special-needs cats who just want to be loved. It’s crazy that my life has continued to bring me things that I am moved to support and raise awareness for.”
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• story by Julie Ulrich