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Former Obama aide Alyssa Mastromonaco on the love for her cats: 'They put everything in perspective'

"When the world feels truly terrible, you cannot help but feel that something must be right to have brought these little fur guys into your life," says Mastromonaco, former deputy chief of staff for operations in the Obama White House.
Alyssa Mastromonaco with her cat, Bun, who passed away of lung cancer.
Alyssa Mastromonaco with her cat, Bun, who passed away of lung cancer.Courtesy of Alyssa Mastromonaco.

Anyone who has ever worked for former White House Chief of Staff Pete Rouse knows of his deep love for cats.

Pete was my boss in the Obama Senate Office back in 2005 (and my sensei to this very day) and we became fast friends. I loved to hear about his cats. After Hurricane Katrina, the Washington Post ran a piece about how all the dogs were being rescued and the cats were going to be euthanized because no one was coming for them. There was a picture of this big, fat beautiful Persian boy named Tommy. I showed him to Pete. He said “go get him right now!”

I had never had a pet on my own before and was very nervous. I went to get Tommy, renamed “Shrum” (yes, after Bob Shrum!) For weeks it felt like a giant raccoon that was going to eat my face was living in my apartment. Shrum wouldn’t come out from under this old arm chair until Pete came over to meet him and coax him out.

Shrum, named after political consultant Bob Shrum.Courtesy of Alyssa Mastromonaco.

From that day on, when I turned the lights out to go to sleep, Shrum would jump in bed and sleep by my side all night long. He waited at the front door for me every night (because he was hungry) and never retaliated when I went on trips for days at a time.

Shrum and I went on many of life’s adventures together. He moved with me to Chicago when Barack Obama decided to run for president. Julianna Smoot was my roommate and Shrum used to love to throw the entirety of his body weight (23 pounds back then) against her bedroom door until she let him in to cuddle. He made every apartment that I had a home.

The night Obama won the presidency, I wasn’t able to celebrate. I had to go to work for the president-elect the next day, but it was fine because I went home to celebrate with Shrum.

He was my best friend.

When I first met my now-husband, David Krone, he fell in love with Shrummie long before he fell in love with me.

Five days after we got married, Shrummie had a stroke. We didn’t know it at the time, until we met Dr. Lauren Talarico at SouthPaws VCA in Alexandria, VA. For weeks, we went from vet to vet and were feeling hopeless.

Dr. Talarico spent 15 minutes with Shrummie and diagnosed him with a Fibrocartilagenous Embolism (FCE) in his spine, which was preventing him from walking. She said that with enough dedication he would walk again. She said she just knew it. So Shrummie began his months of physical therapy and acupuncture, both of which he truly hated. We called his grumpy physical therapy alter-ego, Mr Boods. I don’t know why but it just fit.

Alyssa Mastromonaco served as deputy chief of staff for operations in the Obama White House and is the author of "So Here's the Thing ...: Notes on Growing Up, Getting Older, and Trusting Your Gut."

He made slow progress, and about a week after I left my job in the White House, he walked again! When we left Washington D.C. to move to New York City, at his last day at SouthPaws, his many teams did a slow clap as we walked out to the car. We were so lucky to have another two years with him, we cherished every day. But when he finally passed, we were broken. We even had to leave our apartment for a few days because it was too painful to be there without him. I didn’t think I could ever go through that again.

Until about four weeks later, when I saw this guy called Little Boy on the internet. He had been terrorized living in a dog hoarding situation. The rescue center, Bideawee, said he would need a lot of patience. Bideawee is on the east side of Manhattan, and it was U.N. General Assembly week. David walked several blocks to find a store with a pet carrier and we braved UNGA traffic with Little Boy. It took us a little while to find a suitable name until (with the help of Dan Pfeiffer!) we settled on Petey, after Pete Rouse.

Petey, named after Pete Rouse, who served as the interim White House Chief of Staff to U.S. President Barack Obama.Courtesy of Alyssa Mastromonaco.

Petey had come such a long way but he really thrived when we adopted Bunny. Queen Bun! She’s another Persian princess with lots of attitude. When he would get scared and go hiding, she would go sit with him to let him know it was all OK.

Bun was taken from us way too soon by lung cancer, but after she was diagnosed, we again found the very best vets on this planet (hi Drs. Quagliata, Williams and Liebman) and she enjoyed her final months on this earth largely symptom free until she told me it was her time. Our heartbreak was second only to Petey’s which was harder to handle than our own.

When the world feels truly terrible, you cannot help but feel that something must be right to have brought these little fur guys into your life. In some way or another they put everything in perspective.

Petey is almost 13 years old now, and he has a baby brother Norm, who is almost 3 years and sister, Midgie who is about 7.

Norm just looked like a “Norm”. He has Feline Immunodeficiency Virus and was found by a rescue in Kuwait on the side of a highway. He came to New York with a plane full of rescues. Midgie came from a terrible breeder, abused, with a broken jaw and a host of issues. They are now an occasionally destructive, always lovable version of the Three Musketeers.

Three members of Alyssa Mastromonaco's furry gang.Courtesy of Alyssa Mastromonaco.

They can be a lot of work, but when I see Petey who used to be afraid of his own shadow, watch the snowplow come by without flinching, or see Midgie sleep on her side, which used to be too painful because of her jaw, or Norm covering up Midgie and Petey’s poop and pee in the litter box (having lived in the wild, Norm knows that if you don’t bury, other animals can track your scent so he is protecting them!) - I know there are few things in my life I’ve ever done that are more important.

They are our family.