Dr. James Richards was 58, and seemingly in good health. But that’s not why his death seemed so shocking. He was a superhero. And superheroes, being superhuman are supposed to be impervious.
Richards, who died on April 24, two days after a motorcycle accident about eight miles south of Marathon NY, was the director of the prestigious Cornell Feline Health Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine – Ithaca, NY, and he was the most articulate spokesperson members of the feline persuasion have ever had.
“Communicating constantly as he did to both veterinarians and the general public, he single handedly moved the public perception and preconceived notions about cats,” says Dr. Ilona Rodan, who like Richards is a past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). “Cats are definitely better off today because of Jim Richards.”
Dr. Donald Smith, Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell adds, “He was so influential, proof you can make a difference and move people with compassion and passion.”
Richards arrived at the Feline Health Center in 1991, and took over as director six years later.
Rodan worked together with Richards for the AAFP on then newly suggested and somewhat controversial vaccine protocols (in 2001).
“He was a value driven person,” says Dr. Jane Brunt of Baltimore, MD, immediate AAFP past president. “He did what he thought was best for cats, and that’s all that mattered.”
Rodan, who is in Madison, WI also teamed with Richards on crafting the AAFP published recommendations on Geriatrics & Pain Management. In 2006, the AAFP revised vaccine guidelines and this time with experts from around the world; Richards chaired the advisory panel.
In the 1990’s, responding to a kind of aggressive cancerous growth occurring on cats following vaccinations, he took the initiative to create the Vaccine-Associated Feline Sarcoma Task Force to learn what was happening to his beloved kitty cats. He and his task force did begin to learn about vaccine-associated sarcomas, and they developed protocols for veterinarians.
“Jim worked toward the same goals that we all do – a better life for all cats,” says Dr. Susan Little, of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and president of the Board of Directors of the Winn Feline Foundation. “He was a mentor to countless students and vets, a public face for feline welfare; and someone I always looked up to. He was always in a good mood, always ready to help, always happy to see you. Few people lived their lives as well as Jim.”
“He lived for cats, but loved riding his motorcycle,” says Lea-Ann Germinder, a publicist representing pet industry clients, and based in Kansas City and New York City.
Smith says, “Jim would come walking into the school around 9:30 or so, dressed in his motorcycle gear, holding a helmet in his hand. He had a kind word for everyone.”
Germinder spoke with Richards pretty much on a daily basis for the past two years, as Richards fronted a campaign to communicate subtle signs of illness in cats in 2006 called the Healthy Cats For Life; and this year a campaign called KNOW Heartworms to communicate to the public that cats can die of heartworm disease, though it is preventable. “He was a master at communicating, and made it all seem so easy,” she says. “Heartworm in cats is actually very complex beginning with the microscopic (microfilariae), He took the most sophisticated research, and naturally transformed it all into language the general public could understand. He grew up a simple farm boy from Indiana, and that’s how this very intelligent man spoke. He never talked down to anyone.”
And talk he did – for interviews on CNN, Fox News, CBS, syndicated radio shows, and in print in countless newspaper and magazine articles. He loved to communicate feline health issues, and the media loved talking with him.
Germinder says she’s never worked with a veterinarian quite like him. For starters, he never turned down an interview. He was pretty much available 24/7. “If you cared about cats, Dr. Jim cared about you.” Germinder added that he had a special place in his heart for those who wrote about cats for a living.
Amy Shjojai is the founder of the Cat Writers’ Association of America and has 22 books to her credit; she also writes a newspaper column and regularly appears in magazines, on websites, and on TV. “I owe my career to him,” she says. “He encouraged me, and was there from the start. I got my first book offer based on a story which I quoted him in.”
She’s not alone, another pet book author, Dusty Rainbolt, of Lewisville, TX also credits Richards. “Oh gosh, I was the new kid, a nobody – and most of the famous vets didn’t talk to me then. But he did.”
Rainbolt says she was sort of embarrassed to write about cats as fellow writers covered “more important things” like politics. At a Cat Writers’ Association Conference in 2004, Richards was the keynote speaker, and it was a talk Rainbolt says changed her life. “I was crying then as I am now,” she says. “He talked about his elderly mother – and how having a cat gave her a purpose. Cats matter to people, and by helping cats, we help people.”
Kari Winters, who rescues cats in Albuquerque, NM and also writes about cats, says she once second-guessed her choice career as a cat writer. Richards proceed to tell her a story about how he managed to save a cat’s life when he was a resident. Back then, he too was second guessing his choice of career. After all, his brother was a doctor who saved human lives. He explained that he changed his mind about having career choice doubts when he saw how positively jubilant the family was to get the kitty cat back which Richards saved. Richards told Winters, “What we do to help cats also helps people.”
Richards, who is from Richmond, IN and grew up on a farm in Ohio, earned his A.B. degree in Mathematics (1970) from Berea College, and his DVM (1979) from Ohio State University. He served as an associate veterinarian at Eastside Dog and Cat Hospital in Chesterland, OH and later provided relief and veterinary emergency services at thee other clinics before moving to Cornell in 1991.
Winters received the Cornell Feline Health Center Veterinary Issues Award from Richards in 2004, and she was positively thrilled. “A great moment in my life,” she says.
Whether you’re a rescuer, a breeder or a journalist, Shojai says Richards had time for you, time to listen, time to answer questions. “He not only offered information, he listened,” she says.
Richards was particularly popular with students, says Smith. Richards and his wife Anita frequently entertained Cornell vet school students belonging to the Christian Fellowship at his home. He was the staff advisor for the student chapter of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Richards also helped establish one of the first pet loss support help lines to assist grieving pet owners, which he continued to oversee.
In 2000 he authored “The ASPCA Complete Guide to Cats.” He was a consulting editor and a chapter contributor the classic text, “The Cornell Book of Cats” (1997). He also authored a column for CatWatch (a Cornell University pub), partnering with his office cat Dr. Mew. And he’s authored and co-authored papers published in many veterinary publications.
Shojai , who is in Sherman, TX says, “He will be missed by so many; I sure hope his family and those who worked with him every day realize his impact. A giant – truly a giant, standing tall for cats.”
“He never wavered, he knew who he was,” says Rodan. “He was a natural diplomat, so skilled at bringing people together.”
Brunt concludes, “The legacy he leaves are the lives he’s impacted – he left all of us to carry on his mission.”
MAKE A CONTRIBUTION IN DR. RICHARDS’ NAME TO THE CORNELL FELINE HEALTH CENTER: http://www.vet.cornell.edu/fhc/.
Memorial donations may be made to the Cornell Feline Health Center, College of Veterinary Medicine, Box 13, Ithaca, N.Y. 14853.