with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Lessons Learned from Dahni, The Eyeless Wonder Cat

Dahni, the Eyeless Wonder Cat, new member of the VanFossen Family. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenDahni had no eyes. Shhhh. He didn’t know it. And we didn’t tell him.

They say that what a child didn’t know won’t hurt him. We decided not to tell Dahni that he had no eyes, and he didn’t seem to mind. He was our Eyeless Wonder Cat.

When he arrived in our home in Israel, we learned a few things about life from this tiny blind cat.

Dahni was a true resident of Tel Aviv, one of the thousands of street cats born every year in Israel. We thought he had Egyptian in him as his ears were so large and he was so skinny, resembling the ancient revered Egyptian cats found in statues and mummy remains, which added to his ethnic flavor. However, he was probably mutt, a mixture of all things street cat Israeli.

The Arrival of Dahni into Our Lives

Dahni explores the clothing closet and a few drawers, photo by Lorelle VanFossenMy friend, Deanna, found Dahni on the street when he was barely a month old. He’d been attacked and one eye dangled useless and the other had been sliced in half. Deanna had a heart of gold and she rescued this little helpless creature and took him home. Having very little money, she cared for the kitten as best she could until the second eye popped out, leaving Dahni with pink holes where the eyes would be. Sounds awful, but you didn’t notice it right away. You became accustomed to it after a while. Dahni probably didn’t have time to grow accustomed to his lack of eyes as he could only see for a week or two before he was attacked. To him, this was a normal life.

Deanna begged me to take Dahni as she had to go back to Romania for a month due to her visa status. At last minute I agreed, ready to have the pitiful thing put to sleep right away.

Dahnilukah was delivered to us after we returned from Istanbul where I suffered horribly from my cigarette smoke allergy. Within an hour of his late evening arrival I came down with a massive sinus infection that put me in a vegetative state for five agonizing days of high fever. The infection probably saved Dahni’s life.

During those five days, Dahni proved he was worth keeping around.

Through the fog of my fever, I watched this tiny, black, rat-like kitten manouver around the many chairs and other obstacles we keep in the house with only a bump or two on the nose. Once he knew where the obstacle was, he would miss hitting it on the next pass, never pausing in his pacing and inspection of his surroundings.

Dahni had a unique walk. The front paws act like radar, stepping out rather than down. Get him running, he was pure cat, racing through the house at the speed of sound.

Dahni loves checking out the action through the RV window, hotel window, or any open window, (Spain) photo by Lorelle VanFossenI believe that all cats were trainable and very intelligent, but I was startled at how much intelligent Dahni revealed. I began training him the first day by calling his name and saying “food” and shaking the food dish. Byevening he knew his name and the word “food” very well, bringing him running from wherever his explorations took him in the apartment. It usually took many days if not a week or so to train cats like that.

I tried a variety of toys to amuse him. Noisy toys were clearly the best bet. After much experimentation, a ball of tin foil and a little furry mice with a rattle inside worked best. Not just any rattle. A low pitched rattle didn’t interest him. He was not into thunking sounds. He loved the high pitched mariachi rattle, a tinny pinging sound. He went ballistic after those mice, carrying them around and terrorizing them until they were nothing more than a scrap of fur with the plastic body was exposed.

He played fetch. Locked onto the couch during my sinus infection, I stared at the television with the sound turned down for lack of anything better to do. I looked down to the couch and found a toy mouse next to me. Thinking I had carried it there and forgot, I picked it up and tossed it on the floor.

Much thanks and appreciation goes to Dr. S. Regev and his staff at his veterinary clinic and surgery in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. I went through several vets before Dr. Regev was recommended as the best to deal with Dahni’s unique problems – no eyeballs. Dahni hated it there and was a real terrorist, but they were patient and very understanding with him and with me. Much credit to his survival goes to them as they battled infections and finally did surgery to remove the back wall of one eye and close it. He was now the winking, terrorist, wonder kitty.

A few minutes later, I found it next to me again. I thought this was odd, but in my current mental state, anything was possible. I pitched it again. Lost in the haze of my fevered brain, I was stunned to find it back next to me.

I started paying attention.

I’d throw the mouse and Dahni would chase after the toy, bat it around a bit then pick it up in his mouth and carry it to me, jumping up on the couch and depositing the mouse by my hand and dashing back down to the floor with his chin up, eagerly waiting the next toss. This went on for hours!

He didn’t hunt for the mouse with cautious steps. He propelled himself off the couch or chair to fly through the air and make a mad dash through the length of the house to chase the mouse, slipping and sliding around on the marble floor.

Caution wasn’t in his vocabulary, only determination.

Such was the story of Dahni’s short life with us. Pure determination to live fully.

Dahni, the Famous, Traveling Kitty

He was with us only for a few years, but in that time, his determination, and ours, turned this Tel Aviv street cat into a world traveler as we fled from war in the Middle East. We took him all around Spain in a rented motor home, then to the United States. He flew with us on 12 airplanes and through six countries. He slept in homes, hotels, cars, motor homes, and a convent as I traveled with my blind buddy.

Dahni became famous in Israel for more than his traveling. Ma’Ariv magazine did a story on Dahni (translation) in their children’s magazine, about the “garbage,” singing, camping, and potty-trained eye-less wonder cat.

Dahni uses the toilet like a good kitty! No clean up. Photo by Lynda VanFossenBy the time he was a month or two old, I’d trained him to use the toilet, causing no end of amusement to our friends.

It was actually easy. Deanna had found a children’s plastic potty trainer in the garbage and cleaned it out, filled it with sand from the beach, and it was a perfect tiny cat box for the undersized kitten. As he grew, he learned to straddle it, so it was a natural transition to the human toilet. It certainly saves on smells and clean up, not to mention the expensive of pans and litter.

Dahni was, if nothing else, a creature or routine and habit. He peed into the toilet and came looking for me at my desk. He’d cry and tug at my arm like a human child until I’s get up and go into the bathroom to flush the toilet. He’d jump up on the seat and wait eagerly for the flush. It was a powerful water closet flush. He’d bat the water in the bowl with glee.

I’d go back to work and a few minutes later he’d return for more arm pulling. He’d actually pulled me off my chair with the force of the yank to get my attention. I’d get up and head to the bathroom again to find he’d done the second part of his business. Up on the seat again, he’d wait for the flush and pound the water in the bowl with joy.

Friends told us he was so smart, we should teach him to flush. Sounded like a great idea but thinking it through, he loved playing with the water so much, we knew we’d be woken up in the middle of the night with flush, flush, flush, flush, flush – and there would be no water left in the Kinnerett.

Dahni sang. Yes, he did kitty opera. He’d perform upon request, entertaining his human audience and smiling when they applauded him. He loved to do his best vocal work sitting on a chair facing the back, feet up in position on the back of the seat, looking like a nice choir boy. Upon the “sing” command, he’d howl and holler, ending with a lovely operatic yodel. Unfortunately, we never filmed it. He was gone too soon.

Dahni’s Vocabulary
People were always surprised that Dahni understands English. Any cat can be taught commands and usually they will obey, as long as their training was consistant and constantly reinforced. Cats love to get away with anything and everything so you do have to remind them over and over again, while they were young, that you were in charge and your way was the only way, but you do have to work within their natural habits and abilities. Cats were very verbal and they love the sound of voices around them to reassure them and to communicate.

In addition to words, I also train my cats to respond to sounds like clicking of my fingernails means “come here” as does clicking with the tongue on the roof of the mouth. A deep growling sound means “bad boy” (he usually hides under the bed because he knows he had done wrong). I will also snap my teeth together to warn him when he was biting or playing too hard. Here were some of the verbal command words Dahni knows: Food, Ball, Down, No, Now, Play, Lay Down And Go To Sleep, Good Boy, Potty, Up, Okay, Kiss, Love (cuddle), and Hug.

By the time he reached two years old, he began dropping his fuzzy mice off the balcony until I put a stop to it with a bit of chicken wire. They’d land on the neighbor’s balconies or down below in the garden or driveway and cars would drive off of them. It took me a long time to sort through all the noisy mice in stores to find one with the right sound he liked, so preserving them was a priority for all of us.

He loved camping with us, “watching” the birds from within the tent. Best of all, he loved riding in the car. If possible, he would live in the car. I’ve had cats who liked being in the car but Dahni was so anxious to “go for ride,” he’d be the first one in the seat, ready to go.

He obeyed many verbal commands and sounds, essential for controlling a blind pet. Our favorite command was one that he obeyed so well, it was frightening.

At night when Brent and I were curled up with each other in bed, Dahni will ping and pong all over the bed and the room. Brent will call out, “Dahni, lay down and go to sleep!”

He would hop on the bed, find a spot against a warm body part, curl up, and go to sleep after a quick cleaning. After a full day of battling balls and feet, he slept through the night. We liked that. Few human children respond that well.

Dahni loved to hide under the edge of the bed and attack our ankles as we walk by. Brent held the record for five ankle whacks from one end to the other, which was actually impressive when you consider that tall Brent can walk the distance in two steps. My husband started calling Dahni “Mekh-ah-bell,” Hebrew for “terrorist.” With the fighting escalating between Israel and Palestine, having our own resident terrorist seemed appropriate at the time.

By 2002 he’d turned two years old and was as hyper as ever. We had to have one of his eye sockets closed up. The infection in that eye took a great toll on the little guy and our wonderful vet decided that it was best. “He isn’t using it anyway.”

After two years of rough play with Dahni, my hands had more scars than skin from the scratches. We talked to the vet about the radical act of declawing our resident terrorist. We put it off for as long as we could, debating the issue. After all, we’ve never done this to a cat before and felt it was inhumane to take away a cat’s natural defense. It went against our “natural” values. However, we had to acknowledge that Dahni, as tough and self-reliant as he was, would definitely have a hard time surviving in the “wild.” Dr. Regev and his staff agreed.

Dahni spent two days at the vet, miserable even though they were extra sensitive to his needs. Unfortunately he came down with a respiratory infection for two weeks after, a common result of anesthesia, we were told. As a street cat, he was exposed to the worst germs and viruses around, so his immune system was not very strong.

Three weeks later he got the last stiches out and he was an angel, not biting or scratching the doctors. The whole experience made him more loving and dependent upon our loving. We enjoyed it. He was soon back to his terrorist ways and ankles and hands were at risk, but at least we had less scratches.

A friend of Brent’s at work asked how many things were we going to remove from this poor cat. We removed his eyes (already gone but we had them cleaned out), his testicles, and now his claws. What’s next. Brent answered, “His teeth.”

In the summer of 2003 after many plane flights and international travels, we took him to the vet as he was lagging, not as active as usual and clearly not happy. The vet took some tests but found nothing obviously wrong with him other than some lethargy. “He was probably worn out.”

Dahni lays on the dashboard of our motor home in Spain in Covadunga, photo by Lorelle VanFossenDuring our “refugee” time in Spain and in the United States, Dahni traveled with us from Israel to Spain, and then to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Seattle, Washington, and Ticonderoga, New York, among many other ports of call before finally returning almost five months later to Israel. We believed he was the most traveled blind cat in the world. He loved every moment of his time in the motor home in Spain, even meeting snow for the first time, and he handled the stairs in the homes in the US without any problems at all.

Quite an accomplishment for a street cat from Tel Aviv.

Worn out might have been the answer, but the years of battling infections had taken its toll on his little body. Worried, but busy with the upcoming high holidays in Israel, we kept an eye on him but there was little more we could do until the tests came back with more information. We didn’t get time to get the results.

In the Fall of 2003, on Yom Kippur, one of the sadest days of the Jewish holidays, Dahni died unexpectedly and suddenly. We believe it was from his long battle with infections and allergies; his weakened heart couldn’t take it any more. He’d been through so much pain, luckily his death was fast.

At three years old, Dahni brought such amazing gifts of love and understanding into our lives and we will miss him forever.

He left us with the following life lessons that we will carry with us forever.

Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Dahni

Dahni in his favorite position while traveling, hanging out the door window in Spain, photo by Brent VanFossenDahni had a determination to live life fully unlike many humans I know. He was very goal oriented and passionate about getting what he wants.

Nothing got in between Dahni and his “ball.”

Be it a little styrofoam ball, plastic rattling mouse, or piece of tin foil, these were all “ball” to Dahni and he knew the word.

Say “ball” and he’d jump up and down like a dog, practically panting, his whole body pleading, “throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball, now! Throw the ball, throw the ball…” I’d toss it across the room or down the hall and he was off, nothing stopping him on his path to the goal.

Cat in the bag. Brent says you can take the eyes out of the cat but you can't take the cat out of the cat. 
Photo by Lorelle VanFossenLiving with such an intelligent and determined animal, I can’t help but learn something about myself. When was the last time I focused on any goal, tossed a ball through the air and chased it with any passionate determination? When was the last time I set any real goals in my life?

Dahni’s reward wasn’t about capturing the ball but in bringing it back to me for another throw. There was a reward. He could do it again and again as long as someone cooperated with the throwing.

Early in my life I was very goal oriented, but something slipped along the way. I seem to have forgotten that I have the ability to reset my goals and throw another ball through the air.

As he raced through the house, maneuvering around the chair and table legs and other obstacles that seemed to crop up from time to time, he’d smash his nose and face full tilt into a box or bag that wasn’t there 10 minutes ago. That didn’t stop him. He’d push past it and keep going.

He’d crash and burn and keep going. Nothing stopped him.

If he hit something really hard, he’d shake it off with a sneeze and get back on track, the pursuit still on.

When we humans chase our goals, isn’t it amazing how the smallest obstacle can stop us in our tracks? How many times have you been halted in pursuit of a worthy cause only to stand there and wonder why you were doing this, was it worth it, what good will it do, and why bother? Or maybe you think that this was some “sign” that you shouldn’t be going in this direction and another one might be better? Or you just stand there, frozen and unable to figure out what to do as all the options might keep you from your goal or might help you actually achieve it? I know I’m guilty.

What if we humans, the supposedly more superior animal, lived our life like Dahni, letting nothing get in the way of accomplishing our goals? Wonder what our lives would be like?

Dahni takes time out to sniff the flowers at Gamla National Park in IsraelAmong the many life lessons I’ve learned from Dahni, there was one last one that gave me pause and a lot to consider for a lifetime.

One day I was sitting in my bed editing an article due at a magazine the next morning. I was startled from my consentration by a small black cat flying across my bed in a sitting position.

If you have studied cats – any animal that leaps – you know that they push off from their back feet, fly through the air in an outstretched body position, then land on the cushion of their front legs, followed by the powerful back feet, ready to leap and pounce again.

Not Dahni. He’d push off normally, then tuck himself up into a sitting position, front paws straight in front of him, back tucked up, tail out straight as if he was already sitting on the floor. Dahni had no clue when “down” would arrive.

Startled by this odd cat flying position, I watched him. He hit the floor, missing the entire width of the bed. In an second, he was back to the other side for another try. This time he hit the edge of the bed, tumbling out of control onto the stone floor. Scrambling back around in seconds, he was up in the air in the sitting position, this time hitting the edge of the bed. The force of the flight propelled him off the bed again, but on his next try, he landed.

Over and over again he leapt into a sitted position and landed on the bed, sometimes missing a corner, sounding the bed’s width in him mind like someone playing the game Battleship.

When Dahni jumped, he was ready to land. When we humans jump off our own cliffs, by taking risks and attempting new things, how do we fly through the air? Usually with screams echoing around us as our arms and legs flailing in the air, never knowing where we will land and terrified of the falling as much as the landing.

Dahni knew that one reality in life he was certain of was that he will come down. He will land. So he anticipated landing and was ready for it.

What if we lived our lives this way? Come on, we all know we will land somewhere. That was what falling was all about: the landing. Why don’t we fly through the air in a sitting position, ready to land?

ahni’s Rules for Living might be a good to apply to your own life. Imagine what humanity would be like if we actually lived like Dahni?

  1. The ball was the most important goal.
  2. The journey was an adventure but don’t let it stop you from getting to the ball.
  3. Get the ball and throw it again.
  4. Always jump and fly through the air in a landing position.

Remember, you can probably see the ball you were after. He can’t. So what stops you from getting your ball?


  • marg
    Posted November 12, 2005 at 9:20 | Permalink

    Hi.. I just came across your site, what a lucky kitty Dahni was to have you take care of him, even for the short time he spent here. Dahni was a very special guy and you must miss him a lot. I also have a cat that is blind and think if I adopted another it would be one with a disability. Animals enrich our lives so much. I really enjoyed your story wish you all the best.

  • Posted May 25, 2006 at 15:44 | Permalink

    I have a cat who was born with no eyes named Zach. He does everything a regular cat does and is a big part of our family. Since he can’t pick up on visual cues, I use audible ones like tapping the floor, snapping my fingers or brushing my fingers together. He’s learned what all of these mean. He’s a very fun cat and I am glad the people who bred him did not want him. They missed out on a special and unique furry friend. I think my parents have pictures of him on our website.

  • Cruzer Jemz
    Posted June 5, 2006 at 1:06 | Permalink

    I got a kitten 4days ago and it’s one eye is blind due to starvation in the street but now i think she’s starting to recover. And isn’t that nice? :p

  • Posted June 5, 2006 at 10:17 | Permalink

    I think it’s wonderful. Even today, three years after losing Dahni, and blessed with two healthy, active, and wonderful new cats, I miss my eye-less wonder, Dahni. He really changed our lives and our thinking, inspiring us in so many ways.

    Love your kitten and learn from her. Animals are a wonder and a blessing.

  • Alex
    Posted June 5, 2006 at 12:47 | Permalink

    I like Dahni. I wish I had a cat like him. It is good that he teach you about life so good. Good cat.

  • greg
    Posted October 1, 2006 at 16:38 | Permalink

    I can relate to Dahni bigtime! I just had to put my 6 year old blind cat to sleep yesterday after 5 months of a stomach cancer. His name was Degas(Dega)and he loved to play fetch with paper balls because he could hear them roll better. He usually kept a steady supply of them in his water bowl. He was an ankle swatter just like Dahni too, received 98% of his water from the bathtub tap. When i was on the toilet he got a drink. You cat was special the way he did his business on the toilet.
    An interesting coincidence is that my cat was named Degas after the French impressionist who went blind later in his life. The painter did some of his bet works blind and the strange thing is that my cat was already named Degas when I adopted him as a six-week old kitten. I learned this coincidence only when my cat went blind and I did some research on the painter Degas himself.

    Dega my cat was very compassionate and talked all the time. Any time i entered the house and called his name he would answer, or if i would ask him questions like where is the ball or are you hungry?

    Dahni and Dega would have been great together.

  • Zoe
    Posted October 10, 2006 at 6:19 | Permalink

    Hi~ I`m Turtle- a pure black Japanese cat; well I have a little bit of brown on me if I`m truthful. Just wanted to let you know that I love to play fetch too. Also, once I was big enough I taught my older brother how to jump onto door handles to open door and how to slide other doors open with my paw and head. My mum, who found me when I was a couple of weeks old, says black cats are very special; but only when my brother isn`t about ; )

  • Angie
    Posted January 25, 2007 at 19:08 | Permalink

    I also have a blind cat, Harvey Tiddles. Like Dahni he is also an ankle swatter and loves to hide under the bedcovers and jump out at you as you walk past. Harv is six years old, and I cherish every day I have with him. Many of Dahni’s mannerisms are also true of H, everytime I go upstairs (we live over our Pub) he comes running down the hall towards me, as if I have been missing for days.

    Thanks to John (www.whatagoodcat.com/blog) for the link to your site

  • Posted January 26, 2007 at 11:58 | Permalink

    I was once owned by the most wonderful blind dog. Her lack of vision was much more difficult on me than it ever was on her. Her courage and determination taught me much.

    Bless you for giving Dahni such a safe and loving home. He was a gift.. that is for sure. So sorry to learn of his passing.

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