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Nichole Stone’s world was turned upside down last October after the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, where she witnessed 58 people shot dead and more than 500 injured by suspected gunman Stephen Paddock.
It’s been a tough journey adjusting back to normal life at her home in Palmdale, Calif. And while the 24-year-old restaurant hostess has leaned on family and friends to ease her trauma, there was one friend who helped the most with the healing process: her cat.
“Connor knows when I’m not OK. He can sense it whether I’m sick or I’m emotional or going through a hard time,” Stone told TODAY. “When I’m having an anxiety attack, I can sit there with him and just let my emotions go and there’s no judgment.”
Stone adopted Connor with her then-boyfriend from Best Friends Pet Adoption and Spay/Neuter Center in Los Angeles in the summer of 2014, when the feline was just 3 months old. Connor, who had been abandoned by his mother, stuck out to Stone because he had a broken tail and started licking her face. Within 35 minutes, she was out the door with her new pet.
Samantha Bell, the cat behavior and enrichment lead at Best Friends Animal Society, who first introduced Stone to Connor, said she too noticed something special about the animal. “So many kittens are scared or aloof or busy playing with other kittens. But he was so people-focused,” Bell recounted.
And while Stone has leaned on Connor since adopting him to help get her through tough times, like breakups, she never thought a cat would be one of her main sources of support after the shooting.
Upon returning home from the concert, she had nightmares of reliving the shooting. Loud noises, like the pop of a balloon or a firecracker going off, would send her into panic mode.
“But when I have a bad dream and I wake up, I’m reminded where I am because I have my snuggle bug next to me every night,” she said.
Stone, a huge country music fan, went to the concert with six friends. After making the five-hour drive, she had one goal — to be in the front row all weekend and see some of her favorite performers, including Eric Church and Jason Aldean, up close.
She was near the front of the stage when she heard a loud noise. “I thought, ‘Who the hell brought a Black Cat firecracker?’ The music was still playing, though, so I didn’t think anything was too serious. Then behind me I saw people freaking out and I heard my friend Sam say, ‘Everyone get down!’”
Luckily, Stone and her friends were able to escape uninjured.
Stone still has anxiety and bad dreams, but they’ve eased up — and she says it’s largely due to Connor, whom she wants to officially register as an emotional support animal.
Bell said it makes sense that animals like Connor have provided people like Stone with so much support.
“You’re still able to give love even if you are completely spent and have no love to give. And you feel their love back,” Bell said. “To know that this creature needs you and loves you, it helps you keep going every day.”