August 14, 2013

Sacramento feline's social media fame a life saver

Norm Lopez might have used up one of his nine lives last week when a stranger mistook him for a pregnant cat and dropped him off at the shelter. He's now back home with his front porch perch and big bowl.

Norm Lopez is a feline celebrity.

Mention his name in central city neighborhoods, and people gush about him. He has his own Facebook page – and now has more than 500 friends. Commuters frequently stop by his 14th Street house just to get a glimpse of him.

A local band has put his image on its posters. Now his image is on T-shirts promoting a fundraising pub crawl.

"He really just gained popularity by doing what he does best, lying in the middle of the sidewalk and letting everyone love him," said owner Tyler Lopez of the celebrity cat who weighs between 26 and 31 pounds. "He kind of just became known as that huge, loving, affectionate cat on 14th Street."

Norm's fame likely saved his life.

Last weekend, a well-meaning passer-by mistook Norm for a pregnant cat in distress and dropped him off at the city of Sacramento's Front Street animal shelter.

A worker told the shelter's manager Gina Knepp about a cat who was the largest she had ever seen, and it suddenly "dawned on" Knepp that she knew this animal.

She posted Norm's Facebook photo on the shelter's online site to see if anyone recognized the cat. Facebook followers quickly identified Norm. And when Lopez returned from her camping trip on Sunday, she discovered countless messages on social media accounts about Norm being found at the animal shelter.

According to Knepp, social media worked so well that Norm was picked up within hours and brought back to his porch on Friday, the same day he had been turned into the shelter.

Lopez said she had him microchipped on Monday.

Knepp said about 1 percent of lost cats are reconnected with their owners each year nationally. She attributed Norm's recovery "100 percent" to his social media popularity.

This was not, however, Norm's first brush with potential doom.

Norm is a rescue cat. Two years ago, Lopez heard that a relative's neighbor was going to take the cat to a pound if he wasn't adopted, she said.

After hearing this story, Lopez took her two dogs – Gracie, a Maltese, and June Bug, a Chihuahua mix – to visit the cat. According to Lopez, it was "love at first sniff."

"Norm ran right up to my dogs, and as if he were a dog himself, started smelling them," Lopez said. "They all got along just fine, so I knew that they would be fine living together."

This week Norm was back to his usual haunts. Early Tuesday, he lay belly-up – his favorite pose – in the shade of a staircase leading up to the front entrance of a Victorian-style residence.

Lopez said her cat has brought the neighborhood together. "I work from home sometimes, and around lunchtime, I hear people out there talking to him," Lopez said. "He gets a lot of lunchtime visitors and after-work visitors."

She said she decided to start throwing annual "Friends of Norm" barbecues during summer to unite the community and give them a chance to spend time with Norm.

At one of the events, an attendee suggested launching a Facebook page for Norm.

"I thought it was silly, but then, I said, 'Oh, what the heck, I'll create the page,' " Lopez said.

All posts on the page are written in first person from Norm's point of view. And he gets comments.

In response to an Aug. 1 post, which included a photo of Norm in his younger days, a user proceeded to call him "the George Clooney of cats."

Because of his growing fame, Lopez said that this year she couldn't accommodate all his fans in a front yard barbecue. Instead, she decided to organize a pub crawl for Aug. 31. Lopez will sell shirts with Norm's image for $25 as a fundraiser for the Front Street Animal Shelter. Local graphic artist John Conley came up with the design for the T-shirt.

According to Conley, he didn't even know Norm was famous when he first saw the cat sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk last summer, and took a picture that would be used on promotional materials for his sister's band.

"I just couldn't believe how enormous he was," Conley said.

Knepp hopes Norm's story will inspire others to have their pets microchipped. She said residents can get their pets microchipped at the city shelter for $20.

Call The Bee's Kurt Chirbas, (916) 321-1030.

Editor's note: This story was changed Aug. 14 to correct the cost of a microchip at the city shelter. In addition, the story corrects the chronology of Norm's return. He was dropped off at the shelter Friday, and within hours after the social media posting, was picked up by a neighbor and returned to his home porch, officials said.

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