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Since becoming a mother, Wendy Bylsma has looked for ways to teach her children the importance of helping those in need. They found just such an opportunity recently — as Bylsma and her husband, Justin, settle into life with Apple, a terminally ill kitten they adopted unexpectedly last fall.
Apple — named after Bylsma's daughter's favorite food — has a severe form of feline leukemia that has spread to her bone marrow and is in its final stages. According to Bylsma, only 30 percent of cats with Apple's form of the illness survive past their first birthday. So the Bylsmas and their five children are focused on helping Apple live her remaining days to the fullest.
"A lot of people say, 'That's too hard,' or 'I can't handle that,'" Bylsma told TODAY. "But who's going to step up and do these things? How do I turn my children into the kind of people who are open to these things and want to put themselves out there to help those who need help?"
Bylsma says she and her family were on a Sunday outing when they decided to visit Best Friends Animal Society — a no-kill animal shelter near their home in Salt Lake City, Utah. While letting their two youngest children, Graeme, 3, and Rhys, 1, play with the kittens there, Bylsma noticed a small kitten, alone in a separate area from the others.
"She was teeny tiny — just a darling little thing. She wasn't playing, so I thought we should get her out and play with her," said Bylsma. "And that's when her story kind of unfolded."
Bylsma was told by shelter employees that the kitten had contracted feline leukemia from her mother. Although she had previously been adopted, she was returned to the shelter after her owners discovered her terminal condition.
"These people took her to the vet and had her tested, and that's when they found out she was sick and brought her back," said Bylsma. "When I saw this precious little kitten that had been returned, and we realized that no one was going to take this kitten because she was sick — that broke our hearts. The thought that she wasn't perfect so no one wanted her...that was such a huge and heavy thing on my heart."
Bylsma said she and her husband did not consider themselves to be "cat people," and they already had a dog — a Chihuahua named Dexter. But they decided to bring the kitten home and show her as much love as possible.
"There's no medication for feline leukemia," said Bylsma. "Pretty much, you just try to keep them as healthy as possible because they can get something like a cold or respiratory illness and then degrade in health and die from that."
Jessica Pollitz supervises pet adoptions at Best Friends Animal Society, and worked closely with Apple during her time in the shelter.
"We were very fortunate to have such an amazing family adopt Apple," Pollitz told TODAY in an email. "It's so wonderful when adopters accept a special needs animal. They wanted to give her the best life, no matter how long it would be."
Bylsma says, in addition to getting lots of love from her children, Apple stays indoors, eats a high-quality diet and loves to run throughout her home, playing.
"We have all the typical cat toys to keep her busy and she loves to harass the dog," said Bylsma. "And, of course, my little ones love her and she's pretty tolerant of them. She keeps us on our toes and I think she makes the household livelier — we're enjoying her while we have her."
So how does Bylsma prepare her children for Apple's death?
"My younger ones are so little... but I've already started the conversations with them about when Apple does pass away," said Bylsma, adding that her older kids, Caleb, 15, Cory, 13, and Nik, 10, are more understanding of what will ultimately happen to Apple. She said she has simply told her children that Apple is sick. "I don't know if we'll tell them that she's gone to kitty heaven or what we'll say, but we hope they'll understand."
"This was such a great opportunity to teach our kids about helping others at a young age," said Bylsma. "Yes, it will be sad when Apple dies, but that's OK because we gave her a home. We loved her when no one else would love her. This is what the world needs more of."