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Tortured Hernando County kitten learning to eat and play again

BROOKSVILLE — Dexter shuffled across his cage, nosed a toy sheep named Lamby and sank into a pile of maroon and white towels Wednesday afternoon.

The 1.3-pound ball of black-and-white fur doesn't look or act like an international celebrity, but he is.

In the two weeks since authorities say the 8-week-old kitten was nearly beaten to death by a pregnant Brooksville woman and her two young children, Dexter's story has spread to at least five continents. People have heard of him in places as far away as Uruguay, Laos and Oman.

An Oklahoma woman said the rosary for him; a lady from Arizona burned holy Greek incense and prayed for his recovery; 220 people from 12 countries had lit online virtual candles in his honor as of Friday morning.

From his new home at Pet Luv Nonprofit Spay and Neuter Clinic in Brooksville, Dexter's concerns this week were less global.

Because of his abuse, he struggles to lift up his head. He wobbles when he walks, and, sometimes, his tiny paws drag against the ground. He's also partially, if not totally, blind.

But Dexter doesn't seem to mind.

He's a snuggler who meows — more like squeaks — when he wants attention. His favorite plaything looks like a radish, and he's a messy, paws-first eater. In his spacious cage at Pet Luv — dubbed "Dexter's House," according to a note card adorned with hearts — he's surrounded by toy fuzz balls, and he sleeps atop a heating pad, all part of what the employees call his "prissy cat" treatment.

On its Facebook page, Pet Luv has posted videos of his progress. The page's "likes" jumped from about 400 pre-Dexter to more than 1,200 post-Dexter.

His now-viral story began at Hill n' Dale Park the afternoon of June 10. There, Hernando County sheriff's deputies say, Wilana Joenel Frazier, 24, beat a pair of kittens with a metal baseball bat and then allowed her two boys — one 8 years old and the other 5 — to continue the torture. Four witnesses told investigators the boys kicked the animals, threw them and tried to slice open one's neck with a stick.

At the bottom of a trash can, one kitten died. Dexter lived.

Frazier of 27127 Simona Ave. was arrested on two charges of cruelty to animals and two charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. She denied the accusations and has bailed out of jail.

Frazier still has custody of her children, though a Department of Children and Families spokeswoman said Friday the agency is investigating her.

About 18,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that Frazier be prosecuted to the law's fullest extent.

The night of the alleged attack, one of the kids who witnessed it brought Dexter home. Later, a Hernando County Animal Services officer took the kitten to an emergency clinic. His brain swelled, and his body convulsed. He couldn't eat or drink on his own, and for days he had no control over his bodily functions.

Patrick Pace, Animal Services supervisor, soon called Rick Silvani, president of Pet Luv. Silvani, who eventually named Dexter, told Pace that the nonprofit would cover the medical bills and nurse him back to health.

Doctors say his struggles with balance and vision are likely neurological, a result of the damage done to his brain. He may or may not get any better.

Still, Dexter has progressed well beyond what his caretakers initially imagined.

Tiffany Sroka, a 26-year-old veterinary technician who's worked at Pet Luv for four years, volunteered to care for Dexter full time when the kitten, infested with fleas, first arrived at the facility June 13. Even then, she wasn't sure he would survive.

"He was pretty much a ball of fur and a heartbeat," she said. "Now he plays, and he's a cat."

Though he spiked a fever one night, his seizures have stopped, and he continues to learn. Sroka has seen Dexter reach significant milestones in recent days, and she's recorded them all in a logbook: June 14 at 8:40 p.m., Dexter eats on his own for the first time; June 15 at 12:10 p.m., Dexter's first meow; June 17 at 9:25 a.m., Dexter, at last, "plays with toys."

Along with many following his progress, Sroka and her co-workers once feared Dexter wouldn't adjust well to humans, and especially to children, after the abuse.

"For all his trauma," Sroka said, "he loves people and he loves kids."

When she first brought Dexter home, her 5-year-old daughter, Kaylee, offered some guidance.

"Mommy," Kaylee told her, "all he needs is love and snuggles."

Reach John Woodrow Cox at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com.

Dexter, the 8-week-old kitten that survived alleged torture by a pregnant mother and her two young kids in a Hernando County park, peers over his cage at Pet Luv on Wednesday. Dexter came to the Brooksville clinic with brain swelling June 13.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Dexter, the 8-week-old kitten that survived alleged torture by a pregnant mother and her two young kids in a Hernando County park, peers over his cage at Pet Luv on Wednesday. Dexter came to the Brooksville clinic with brain swelling June 13.

Tortured Hernando County kitten learning to eat and play again 06/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 24, 2011 11:41pm]

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