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2 years after 40-foot fall she’s saving cats

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POSTED March 29, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Karen Duke has nine lives. 

First, the 71-year-old survived a 40-foot fall from a pine tree that emergency services personnel and doctors both said more often than not kill people of her age. 

She made it through the multiple reconstructive surgeries and recovered from the massive internal trauma that included a punctured lung and a ruptured spleen. 

In all that meant three weeks in the intensive care unit at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, another two weeks in the hospital and a long, nine-month road through physical therapy. 

There was a point, early on, where there was a chance she wasn’t going to live. And even if she did the chances of her ever walking again – a smashed pelvis and a broken femur left orthopedic surgeons with an amazing amount of work to do – were slim. 

And less than two years later she’s back at her old tricks – tending to the more than two-dozen cat feeding stations around Lathrop that she keeps in order to trap feral animals and get them fixed. 

“The doctors were amazed that I survived – they would tell me that it was a miracle,” Duke said. “But I attribute every part of my healing to God. I think that showed me that he wasn’t quite finished with me yet. 

“I’m still blown away by the amount of support that I’ve received from the community and the number of cards that came in urging me to get better. I’m at about 90 to 95 percent right now. It’s been a long road, but I’ve had a lot of family support to get me through it.”

Some people were shocked when they heard that Duke, at her age, was still willing – and able – to climb a tree at all. Those that knew her already were well aware that she’d do just about anything to save a cat, even if it meant going out onto a shaky limb. 

Duke said that she remembers very little about the fall. The tree was a pine ripe with branches jutting out in a myriad of directions. The limb that she climbed out onto wasn’t exactly brittle but it wasn’t exactly sturdy either – anchored to a tree that appeared to show signs of being dead. The rest is a blur.

Even laid up in a hospital bed and working hard to return back to her passion, Duke’s feline outreach went on. Friend Lupe Herrera, who is currently struggling in her own battle with cancer, stepped in to seamlessly pick up where Duke left off. 

The warm reception she received from the community is a testament to her ardent support and relentless dedication – earning praise even from those that disagree with her methods. 

Some have criticized the outspoken advocate for her work as they feel it only encourages the feral cats to stick around. Some take a much more militant, and even sometimes violent, approach to solving the problem. 

All that Duke says that she wants to do is educate the public about the importance of making sure that their respective pets are spayed and neutered, and not just because it helps keep down the skyrocketing population that she works tirelessly to track. 

“A lot of times men are against getting their male cats neutered, and so far this year I’ve already had to take three of them to get put down because they get out and they fight and they end up with Feline AIDS,” Duke said. “I just want people to know that they need to get their pets spayed or neutered. 

“That’s really what the work I’ve been doing is all about. I care about the animals – I just want to stop the breeding.”

For more information about Duke’s organization, Happy Pet Owners, write to P.O. Box 586, Lathrop CA 95330, or call 209.858.2124.

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