CATS’ TALE: A story about a blind cat and her buddy could lead to prize for humane society

Penelope the sightless cat came from a feral colony and was brought to the Hancock County Humane Society in July. Author Kathleen Free, who volunteers at the shelter, has written a children's book about Penelope and her companion, Orville. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — After Debbie McKinney’s husband died of COVID-19 in April, she soon knew she’d need to fill the emptiness that permeated her Morristown home.

Enter Penelope, an eyeless cat, and her “seeing-eye cat” Orville.

McKinney, a medical assistant who works in Greenfield, adopted the dynamic duo from the Hancock County Humane Society in August.

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Now, the feline best friends are the subject of a children’s book that has been entered into a contest that could win the shelter up to $10,000.

Shelter volunteer Kathleen Free wrote “Penelope and Orville: A Song For Many Voices,” about the duo’s unlikely friendship. The book has been entered into the “Clear the Shelters Adoption Story Challenge,” hosted by The Animal Rescue Site and

The contest will award pet food, supplies and cash prizes totaling $65,000 to the shelters who get the most votes by readers online.

Free has her sights set on the $10,000 grand prize to benefit the local shelter, at 214 E. Main St. in Greenfield.

As of Tuesday, Sept. 22, Free’s book was ranked in the Top 10 on the site.

“Since we haven’t been able to hold any fundraisers this year, it would be a tremendous help,” said Free, who volunteers daily at the shelter, helping with cleaning duties and feeding the cats and kittens. She’s also a frequent feline foster mom.

Free was tapped to write a story for the contest by the humane society, since she’s already written a series of children’s books about one of her four cats who is especially cantankerous.

“He was very mischievous, very full of himself, so I wrote about what it was like for him to come home for the first time as a shelter cat,” she said.

“I call him my criminal cat, a cross between John Dillinger and Al Capone. The book wrote itself,” said Free, who mostly wrote the story to entertain the children in her family.

She gave copies of the book to the humane society to hand out to families who adopt a pet.

Free was inspired to write a story about Penelope after fostering her this summer, along with a black and white kitten named Orville.

A lifetime cat lover, Free quickly fell for Penelope — a lovable brown tabby who was born with no eyes. The sightless feline was born into a feral colony and was brought into the shelter in July, when she was estimated to be 2 years old.

Orville was 9 weeks old and being fostered at Free’s house when she brought Penelope home, to care for her as she was recovering from a uterine infection and spay surgery.

While Free’s own cats wanted nothing to do with Penelope, she and Orville formed a quick bond. The kitten soon took it upon himself to serve as her guide around the house.

“Penelope was born without eyes, but despite this, she was and is a most trusting, loving, resilient little cat. Orville became her trusted friend and supporter, her ‘seeing-eye cat,’” Free said.

In August, the humane society registered to take part in a “Clear the Shelters” event, a nationwide initiative for shelters to adopt out as many pets as possible.

That’s when McKinney reached out, responding to the online posting for Penelope.

McKinney works a half mile from the shelter, directing the lab at the Sue Ann Wortman Cancer Center at Hancock Regional Hospital.

“She asked if Penelope could be a single cat, and at first I said yes because I so wanted her to find a home,” Free recalled.

But after more consideration, she told McKinney that Penelope and Orville were a happily bonded pair.

“I thought about how hard it would be for Penelope to be home by herself while her person is at work all day. She’d be so much better off with a companion who can provide her some stimulation,” Free said. It was the perfect job for Orville.

Thankfully, McKinney decided she’d take them both.

“I’m grateful to have them, and they are very happy,” McKinney said. “Penelope cares for Orville like a mom, and Orville is like her seeing-eye cat.”

It’s yet another happy ending for a shelter where volunteers work to save as many animals as they can, Free said.

To support the local shelter, she encourages the community to log on and vote daily for her story on the shelter challenge website. Voting began Sept. 15 and ends Sept. 30.

To read the story and vote, visit:

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The Hancock Humane Society is seeking the community’s votes to help win a $10,000 grand prize in an online story contest.

“Penelope and Orville: A Song For Many Voices,” tells the story of a shelter cat born with no eyes, and the kitten who took it upon himself to be her “seeing eye cat.”

The book has been entered into the “Clear the Shelters Adoption Story Challenge,” hosted by The Animal Rescue Site and

Online visitors can vote daily through Sept. 30 by visiting: