Mary Jo Zaksas’s bonds with feline friends extend from one life to another

Caspurr enjoyed jumping through a hoop.

Cats may have nine lives, but nine’s not enough for Mary Jo Zaksas.

Mary Jo and Joe Zaksas. (Photos with this story courtesy of Mary Jo.)

Mary Jo, my Sarasota neighbor, grew up with field cats on a farm in Iowa. She’s always had a special bond with feline friends. Several cats have “just shown up” in her life. Her first “house cat” was Tuffer, a kitten found abandoned in the corn field of the farm.

Her next kitten came from Mary Jo’s beautician. Another was huddled in the window well of her and husband Joe’s house in Barrington, IL. Still another jumped into her car at a gas station near her Barrington home.

Mary Jo’s beloved Torti appeared at the Zaksas home at about six months of age.

“She was very lovable and special,” Mary Jo (MJ) says. When Torti died, MJ determined to find “a replacement friend” for her and Joe’s other cat, Spikey.

Joe insisted that Torti send his replacement. Mary Jo believes Torti did just that in the white kitten she found at a shelter in northern Illinois. Three times in a row, the kitten picked up a toy ball, raced around the room, jumped into MJ’s lap and gazed into her eyes.

She named him Caspurr for his white fur and continuous purr. She taught him tricks. Caspurr learned to sit, shake, roll over and jump through hoops.

Mary Jo had an active business career in Human Resources. She ran her own executive search firm in Chicago. Lacking human children, Mary Jo adored her feline offspring.

In recent years, when Caspurr and his pal Kaylee passed away a month apart, the Zaksases were devastated.

“I needed to find a replacement for our irreplaceable pets,” MJ says.

Joe insisted she look for a sign that Caspurr’s successor was sent by Caspurr. MJ checked out a cat adoption site online; no luck. She visited a few local shelters; nada.

Finally, she drove more than an hour to the SPCA shelter in Lakeland, FL. There she spotted Hugo—mostly white with unusual markings and a white tip on his tail. The kitten looked like a
cross between Caspurr and Kaylee.

Hugo was on meds and couldn’t travel that day. In another room, Sweetie, a tiger kitten, jumped into her lap and kneaded on her shoulder. “She wouldn’t let me get away,” MJ reports.

“She picked you out,” Joe said.

Soon after, both kittens became my new neighbors. Hugo already jumps through hoops, sits, shakes and rolls over. Sweetie, too, is learning some tricks.

Mary Jo’s “all in” on another passion as well. She’s a respected orchid grower. For her 70th birthday, she didn’t long for a necklace or diamond ring. Encouraged by Joe, she built her own climate-controlled growing room for exotic orchids.

MJ’s collection of around 100 Dracula orchids, which mainly grow in Ecuador and Colombia, are being studied by Sarasota’s Selby Gardens. The renowned botanical venue takes cuttings of Mary Jo’s plants for DNA research. A Selby photographer also shoots photos of the blooms.

At 76, though diagnosed with MS just two years ago, Mary Jo is faring well. Of her feline and floral children she says, “I hope I have many years to work with them.”

Her many fans in Florida hope so, too.

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