James Bowen talks Street Cat Bob: “I had to heal myself for both our sakes”

Former Big Issue vendor James Bowen explains how the world's favourite moggy saved him – and their story echoes across the globe

Sometimes, just when you need it, help appears in the most unlikely form. I’m sure that, at some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced a chance encounter with a stranger, unexpectedly made contact with an old, forgotten friend or simply experienced an act of random kindness that has lifted our spirits when we were down. Often these moments can be so profound that they set you back on the right path. They can, quite literally, be life-savers. Of course, those encounters don’t necessarily have to be with other humans. For many people, me included, it was an animal that made the difference and helped me turn my fortunes around when I was down on my luck.

Barely a day goes by when I don’t receive a letter, email or Facebook post from someone telling me their cats, dogs and assorted pets have saved their lives too

I discovered Bob, an extraordinarily handsome and intelligent stray ginger cat, lying injured in my assisted housing block in Tottenham, north London, almost exactly 10 years ago, in the spring of 2007. I was at a pretty low ebb in my life at the time. Recovering from drug addiction and a spell of homelessness, I was on the first rung of a ladder that I hoped would restore some kind of security and order to my chaotic life. On the face of it, the last thing I needed was the responsibility of looking after another broken creature. I had more than enough on my plate looking after myself.

But in fact, it was precisely what I needed. Bob was a vulnerable creature that needed me to look after him. So, even though I was vulnerable too, I needed to heal myself for both our sakes. It proved a powerful stimulus, one that gave me a purpose and a direction, not just to finish my recovery but to get my life back on track. It eventually set my life moving in a truly unexpected direction, first as a Big Issue vendor and then as the author of a book about my experience. A Street Cat Named Bob, published in 2012, is now the subject of a major movie, premiered last year and now released on DVD and Blu-ray.

Writing the book and making the film has brought me into contact with people all over the world. Bob and I have travelled to Germany, Holland and Norway, amongst other places, and I’ve lost count of the number of interviews I’ve given to international newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations. It is a struggle at times to keep up with the fan mail that Bob and I receive from places as far flung as Australia and America, Japan and Brazil. The people we hear from are wildly diverse, from young children to octogenarian grandmothers. Yet one theme is common throughout.

It seems my experience was far from unique. Barely a day goes by when I don’t receive a letter or email or Facebook post from someone telling me that they have been through the same thing. That their cats, dogs and assorted pets have saved their lives too.

It is, therefore, no surprise that when you look at the best-seller lists today you see them dotted with these kinds of stories. For instance, H is for Hawk, the story of how training a beautiful bird of prey helped a woman overcome her grief; Dewey, the tale of the library cat that put a smile on the faces of an entire community in America; When Fraser Met Billy, the moving account of how another cat helped a desperate mother bring her young boy out of his autistic shell; and Haatchi, a book about the injured dog that became an inseparable and inspiring companion to Little B, a young boy suffering a rare illness. Each of these offer more evidence of the power of animals to heal, help and inspire us.

James and Bob, photographed for The Big Issue by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

HOW MY PET SAVED ME

The Big Issue asked to hear your stories, and you’ve shared many tales of how your lives have been transformed by the power of animals. You can read some here. And who knows, yours might make a book – even a movie – one day too.

“She is the best therapy for me”

I have a cat called Smudge who I would be lost without. I have depression and she is the best therapy for me. My wee pal came into my life at a point where I was at a real low and, as dramatic as it seems, she really saved me.
Claire Davidson, Aberdeen

“It was like medicine”
I moved to Birmingham in 2008 when I finished my design degree and was offered a job at the Cadbury design studio. I was working as a graphic designer on the packaging side for 13 years. In 2012, after the Kraft takeover, I was made redundant. I was scared as we’d just taken on a new mortgage. Spending day after day at home app-lying for other design jobs and getting nowhere fast, I was getting very disheartened. Luckily my three cats saw this happening and each took it in turns to come over and lighten my spirits. It was like medicine! After numerous knock-backs, and very disappointed, I was cuddling my cat Madison when I came up with the idea of pet-sitting. I asked my local job centre if they could offer me some advice. I joined NarpsUK, which represents the pet-sitting profession, enrolling on first aid courses for cats and dogs. My business, From Wags to Whiskers, was born, and five years on I am loving my job.
Lisa Murray-Lang, Birmingham

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

“Poppy saved me, now I’m helping to save cats”
In 2012 I had been in a mentally and physically abusive relationship for three years and managed to get away from the guy, moving back with my parents and three cats – Sox, Baby Lee and Poppy. Unfortunately the abuse I endured had a lasting impact and I was diagnosed with clinical depression and severe anxiety. One Sunday I tried to take my own life. Mum found me before I completely cut through my wrist. From that point Poppy knew I needed looking after; she stayed with me every day on the sofa, only getting off to eat, use the litter tray and stretch her legs. She then came straight back to me. It was what I needed. Since then my mental health has improved, and even though I struggle with low days I volunteer at a local RSPCA cattery and have managed to bring round many nervous cats. If any cat comes in and is very nervous, I am always the one sent to help bring them out of their shell. I absolutely love helping there. My cats make sure I am never low for long.
Steph, email

“Brave rescue dog rescued us”
August 18, 2014: a date I will never forget. We had a house fire, which made myself and my three children Loren, Charlie and Mollie homeless. Our biggest loss was our three rescue dogs Bailey, Pipin and Lucy. We were devastated but Bailey was recognised by the Blue Cross as he woke up my eldest child (I was at work) and saved their lives. I thank God every day for my rescue dogs because without them my children wouldn’t be here today.
Chantelle Peterson, email

“We look after each other”
My cat Monty helps me cope with my bipolar disorder; he gets me up in the morning and having him has enabled me to get my life back on track. He has diabetes and we look after each other. He’s a bit of a character and makes me laugh every day.
Michele Baston, Facebook

“She makes me know my heart is still working”
Life is a funny thing and it often doesn’t go the way we expected. By the time I was 31 I had three failed pregnancies and had part of my cervix removed. I now knew I would never have a baby of my own. Having being born ‘different’, with a personality disorder, I had also fallen into one of the deepest depressions I had ever exper-ienced – I no longer felt emotion, no happy ones anyway, only if mania set in. And what goes up must come down. Smokey is my little Aussie Bob. I’m not sure why I got so lucky and got the most beautiful, well-behaved, brave, smart, loving and loyal little girl in the whole world but I did, and it makes me feel special. She is my best mate who stands by me, comforts me, makes me laugh when I am blue and, if she can’t, she will sit with me in solace till the darkness fades. She makes me know my heart is still working.
Cherie Leonard, Australia

“His love kept me sober”
We got WALL-E as a kitten. At the time, I was in active alcoholism. WALL-E was afraid of me, especially when I was drinking. He attached to my boyfriend but not me. When he was four months old, I got sober. After a few days sober, I was emotionally drained and laid down for a nap. WALL-E laid with me the whole time. The first few months were incredibly hard but WALL-E made them easier. I’m still sober, almost four-and-a-half years later. I know I never would’ve stayed sober without his love.
Laraine Colwell, US

“Kitty’s wake-up calls saved my life”
When my cat was a baby, it lost its mother. I found it and saved its life. Later, the cat saved mine. Every morning it woke me up by kneading and meowing, digging its head under my arms until I got up. It was hard for me to get up but it never gave up before I was out of bed. I told everybody how cute it was how it woke me every morning, I didn’t need an alarm clock. But the cat wasn’t waking me up, it was bringing me back to life from unconsciousness. After one year my doctor discovered by accident I was terminally ill and I was rushed to hospital by ambulance. I discovered that if I hadn’t been ‘rescued’ in the morning during the illness, I would most likely have died in my sleep. Soon after I had major surgery. That’s how the cat saved my life. When I came home I woke up by myself. I was looking forward to the ‘waking-up ceremony’ but my cat never woke me up again.
Karine Haaland, Norway

“He plays and runs and loves”
I have very bad PTSD. Over time I found cats seem to calm the bad feelings. A friend brought me a malnourished, abused, scared kitty. I focused as much love as possible on him, he’s called Onix, and now he plays and runs and loves.
Jada Williams, Facebook

“I found my purpose”
Niilo chose me as a kitten. My first-born had just passed away after he was born prematurely. Niilo took me through tremendous pain and comforted me, the only one who did. Then I found out my second son was severely ill. When he passed away, Niilo took care of me. I had him for 20 years. A couple of months after Niilo left me in this life I went to Lesvos in Greece to support refugees. I needed to. I found my purpose. One day I saw something moving in my bag – a cat eating my bread. I’d never seen a cat eat bread before. I said: “You don’t need to be afraid of me.” She stopped and looked at me. She looked fluffy, so that’s what I named her, Fluffy, and our life together started.
Maarit Snellman, Finland

“My cats sat by me and licked my tears”
My eight cats were there for me during chemo when everyone else, including my husband, left me alone to deal with it. The six-month treatment almost killed me. I was so weak I’d crawl through feeding, watering and scooping duties. They consoled me, sat by me, licked my tears, gave me a reason to stay alive. Otherwise, I would not be here today.
Huntress Maxine Thompson, Facebook

“Fred is my dad’s saviour”
Fred came into our lives after my mum passed away after 55 years of marriage to dad, Eric. We then lost our black and white cat, Thomas, shortly afterwards, another last link with mum. My dad, an ex-Royal Marine, is now 93 years old and when Fred came to us from the farm next to the village church, he began to transform a very sad, bewildered and lonely man. Whilst I was at work each day, a very feisty little grey and white boy immediately got to work on giving my dad a sense of life again. What a transformation. Fred is now 10 and their bond is unbreakable. I fit in there somewhere – with feeding etc! – but Fred is my dad’s saviour.
Helen Davies, email

“This horse taught me to be strong”
I was always an insecure and shy child and I was also bullied by my classmates. My parents suggested I should practise sport and I chose horse riding. It was during my second riding lesson that I saw him for the first time: Cutter Bills Borrego, an American Quarter Horse. Lesson by lesson, riding and taking care of him, I started learning how to be more confident and stronger. He taught me that instead of hiding it is better to face one’s fears and try to carry on. Seven years later he got seriously ill on his forelegs and he was destined for the slaughterhouse. My riding teacher offered to give him to me. My parents were doubtful about keeping a lame horse that would probably never recover but they knew and understood I had a dream to fulfil: help him and save him, just as he had helped and saved me. Little by little I brought him back to health. Now he is 33 and in great shape! This horse taught me to be strong and if I have become the woman I am now I can only thank him.
Barbara Cattaneo, Italy

“If it wasn’t for Freddie I would have gone under”
My husband sadly passed away Christmas Day 10 years ago. My husband’s best friend brought me Freddie a few months later, when he was a kitten. He was very mischievous but helped to take my mind off the death of my husband. Freddie has been a lifeline to me over the years, as even now I am still devastated by the death of my soulmate. If it wasn’t for Freddie I would have gone under.
Christine Allen, Wales

“I start and finish my day happy”
When I was 15 I started therapy. My family was full of problems. Although the therapy helped me, I didn’t have courage. At the same time I was in an abusive relationship where my boyfriend made me feel bad all the time but I could not break up with him. Meanwhile, I was taking care of two cats. I fed them every day when I woke up and before I went to sleep, so I started and finished my day happy. Today I work in an animal-assisted therapy project in my city, changing the lives of people through the help of the animals. And it’s all because my cat makes me go on, like Bob made James go on.
Amanda Braz Ramirez, Brazil

“He could tell I needed a friend”
Schwartzy picked me one May day in 2000 because he could tell that I needed a friend. He was a great companion from that first night on. He visited my mother in the nursing home, was there when I married, welcomed home two children, protected the home from intruders, attacked a bullmastiff because it was getting too close to my son, and always put my children to bed each night. He moved with the family to California in 2011 and survived the divorce of my ex-wife and me so that he could be there for my kids. I haven’t seen him in quite a while but it makes me feel good to know that he is with my kids when I can’t be and that he still puts them to bed.
Ron Philip Rehbein, Facebook

With thanks to Garry Jenkins. A Street Cat Named Bob is out on Blu-ray & DVD