The death of their beloved cat Aspen inspired Tim Ma and Melissa Greenough to establish a new fund at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital to help pet owners pay for treatments for their animals they otherwise couldn’t afford.
The couple said goodbye to Aspen in July, just days after he was diagnosed with cancer. By the time his disease was discovered, it had spread to critical areas of his body. The oncology team at WSU could offer little more than compassion.
He was just 7 years old. He left behind many broken hearts, but thanks to a donation by Ma and Greenough to establish Aspen’s Fund at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, his memory will serve to help animals receiving care at WSU. The fund will be similar to the Good Samaritan Fund, which was established more than two decades ago by WSU veterinary students to help animals in need of care but who were either ownerless or their owners could not afford treatment.
“Aspen broke my heart — but he always was and always will be our kitten,” Greenough said. “This fund is going to be a fantastic way to help heal our broken hearts. His memory can still help so many animals and the people who love them.”
A giant cat (and personality)
At 23 pounds, Aspen was a giant of a cat. His stature, though, was dwarfed by his personality.
“Everyone who met him instantly fell in love with him,” Greenough said. “Even if cats weren’t their preferred animal, Aspen had a way about him that made even dog-lovers love him.”
Aspen wasn’t always a giant. When Ma first caught sight of him on June 5, 2014, roaming the parking lot of an office building, he was a scraggly 5- to 6-week-old malnourished kitten.
“Tim called me and said, ‘hey, we found this kitten in the parking lot — what do we do?” Greenough said. “I was like, you bring him home — you can’t just leave him abandoned.”
Ma and Greenough remember how Aspen loved sleeping on his back and taking naps on his ottoman near the fireplace. He was obsessed with food, with key lime pie yogurt and chicken nuggets among his favorites. He enjoyed car rides, and if he saw a box, he sat in it, never mind whether he fit or not.
And he was always waiting at the door when they came home.
“You could stealth come into the house, and he would just be there waiting for you, I don’t know how he knew,” Ma said. “He had dog hearing, I guess.”
A cancer diagnosis
Aspen had slowly been losing weight, but that was initially no cause for concern as he had been placed on a “diet” to shed a few pounds. Eventually, however, Ma and Greenough began to suspect there was more going on.
Their veterinarian in Ellensburg, Washington, ran a handful of tests and began to suspect cancer.
“I asked the vet if it were her what would she do, and she said she would get in her car and head to WSU,” Greenough said.
She and Ma wasted no time, immediately heading east.
“We came straight to Pullman — we didn’t have any toiletries or anything,” Ma said.
The following day at WSU, Dr. Tien Tien, a resident oncologist, confirmed their worst fears. Aspen had cancer, and it had spread to critical areas. He couldn’t be saved.
“We took him home so he could have one more night with us and his siblings,” Greenough said.
While the giant presence of Aspen is missing, their home is not empty. In addition to their cats Boo and Jane, Ma and Greenough have started an animal rescue and are currently caring for more than 40 chickens and more than a dozen ducks on their property.
They’ve had a pond dug for the ducks to have a place to swim; they’ve constructed a handful of coops for the chickens; and they’ve had a pole barn built that will soon give them room to foster cats.
“I’ve always liked animals and wanted to be a vet, but it is not always rainbows and sunshine, and after having to have a couple of cats put down, I don’t have the heart to do the negative side,” Greenough said. “We want our rescue to be a place where if people can’t care for their animal or if the animal has a disability, we want to take them to give them a good life, regardless of whether that’s a week, a month, or a year.”
They have also started preparing for a u-pick orchard where they will grow strawberries and other fruits and vegetables. They plan to name the orchard “Aspen’s Patch,” and its proceeds will go toward Aspen’s Fund at WSU.
Ma and Greenough’s donation to WSU was matched by their employers, BECU and Key Bank. The couple plan to make additional donations every year on their wedding anniversary.