In Living

Daniel the remarkable cat. (PHOTO: Royal Brevväxling)

In Living

Daniel likes his leash. (PHOTO: Royal Brevväxling)

26-toed cat fundraises, models, volunteers, paints, donates blood and more

Welcome to OnMeowaukee Cat Week, a meowsome bunch of articles, photos, videos and an Instagram contest celebrating all aspects of Milwaukee cats. Sponsored by Bark N' Scratch Outpost, these seven days are dedicated to those creatures with nine lives who make our lives more paw-sitive.

In 1999, Amy Rowell – who was a teacher in Kansas City at the time – went to a pet store to buy a hermit crab for her classroom, but ended up adopting a cat instead. Once a feline caregiver, Rowell immediately became involved in animal welfare efforts. In 2005, she moved to Milwaukee and established the Milwaukee Animal Rescue Center.

While running the rescue center, Rowell took in a red-and-white polydactyl whom she planned to eventually re-home. However, from the beginning she had a strong connection with him and – along with the support of her husband, Jason – decided to keep him permanently.

"I know this sounds weird, but from the moment I met him, I knew his name was 'Daniel,'" says Rowell.

Daniel is a red-and-white polydactyl, which means he was born with more than the usual number of toes. Cats typically have 18 toes, but Daniel has 26.

Daniel showing off his many toes.

When Southridge Mall did not renew the Rescue Center's lease in 2012, Rowell and her coworkers launched a fundraising effort to find a new location for the no-kill shelter. Fox6 came to the center to cover the story, and during a commercial break, Rowell shared a photo of Daniel with the reporter.

They decided on the spot to add a fun twist to raise money for the shelter and asked viewers to pledge $26 – $1 for each of Daniel's toes. Within a minute of announcing the $26 pledge request, the phones started ringing off the hook. The story went viral and was picked up by the Huffington Post and the Associated Press. Within eight weeks, Daniel's toes raised $120,000 and the Rescue Center was able to move to a new home on Loomis Road. (Some of the money was later allocated to the Humane Animal Welfare Society.)

"The donations came from all over the world," says Rowell. "Greece, Hong Kong, everywhere in the U.S."

To stay connected with the people who pledged money, Daniel – via Rowell, of course – set up a Facebook page, which is still very active today. Daniel also has a web site.

Daniel's fame from the fundraiser landed him "celebrity cat" status, which later morphed into media exposure. He has an agent in Chicago now and has starred in two Tidy Cat commercials and numerous Purina ads.

"He has the perfect temperament (for pet modeling)," says Rowell.

Daniel's friendly and interactive demeanor was first acknowledged by Rowell shortly after she adopted him and a group of autistic boys came to the Rescue Center. Most of the cats hid from the children, but Daniel interacted lovingly with all of them.

"He is really intuitive in general, and he was that day to those boys' needs," says Rowell. "It was the first moment I knew there was something really special about him."

Daniel also volunteers at the Village of Manor Park where he visits people in the memory care unit. Many of the patients have Alzheimer's or suffered a brain injury and are non-verbal, but Rowell says their faces light up when they see Daniel.

"He's especially popular with the ladies," she says.

Daniel knows his way around a camera.

When he's not fundraising, modeling or volunteering, Daniel also likes to walk on a leash or in his stroller, eat cat nip (which he and Rowell grow together in pots on the deck) and dress up. Daniel has about 60 outfits, and Rowell says his favorite items to wear are his superhero cape and his Milwaukeee Home T-shirt. Rowell sometimes buys him size 6-to-9-month baby clothing from box stores.

"He also likes to wear his elf costume and drive around Candy Cane Lane to look at all the lights during the Christmas season," says Rowell.

Daniel is also on a blood donor list at a local emergency veterinary clinic and regularly raises money for various non-profit organizations through his annual calendar (go to Daniel's Facebook or web page to stay informed about his 2016 calendar) and his paintings.

"People often wonder how a cat paints," says Rowell. "We squirt paint on a canvas, cover it with plastic wrap and Daniel walks around on it."

Daniel has an older brother, Bunsie, who might not get as much time in the limelight, but he does have a birthday party every year. The birthday parties – which feature a bounce house, DJ, karaoke, yard games and more than 100 guests – are also a fundraiser for organizations. This past June, the proceeds from Bunsie's party – which is called Bunsie Fest – raised money for the Guest House, a homeless shelter where Rowell now works.

Bunsie, Daniel's older brother, may not get the limelight but enjoys his time in the sun.

"Bunsie was in my life before Daniel – even before my husband – and I love him more than anyone," says Rowell.

As for Daniel's future, Rowell says it's going to be more of the same.

"Daniel will continue his philanthropy work, advocating for different causes, dressing up and just being his lovable, friendly self," she says. "Daniel is very confident without being a jerk."

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