When most people think of a fire house mascot for fire fighters, the Dalmatian comes to mind. And fierce, strong, muscular German Shepherds are usually thought of accompanying law enforcement officers.
But a cat? A petite, female cat in the company of a sheriff and his deputies?
Yup, here in Mountain Home at the Baxter County Sheriff’s office, where a sweet, friendly, brown-and-black tortoiseshell cat — aptly named Cornbread — can be found in the office of either Sheriff John Montgomery or Office Manager Kelley Stone, visiting other staff members or near the reception desk.
The saga of how Cornbread went from a stray to the beloved mascot of the sheriff’s department began over three years ago, according to Montgomery, who said he and his wife, Karen, noticed the cat around their Cotter home for several weeks, but she was skittish and never came close to them.
Then one evening, as they sat around their outdoor fireplace, the cat jumped into Karen’s lap. As she petted the cat, she realized, the cat had been declawed and the couple noticed some of her fur appeared to have been burned.
Although the Montgomerys are animal lovers, they didn’t feel they could be good pet owners at this time in their lives, “and without claws,” says the sheriff, “we weren’t going to leave a defenseless cat on her own.”
They considered taking her to the Humane Society of North Central Arkansas when Karen suggested, “Why not make her the department pet?”
The following day Montgomery brought her to the office with food and other supplies. The idea of her living in the garage, where the “309 inmates” — prisoners from the Arkansas Department of Corrections who are housed at the county jail and perform work related assignments including housekeeping and maintenance — could care for her, was nixed by Stone who said, “in the garage, with vehicles and open doors, it was just too dangerous.”
So upstairs to the office went Cornbread the cat, after a visit to local veterinarian, Dr. James Snodgrass for shots and a check-up.
The name “Cornbread” also came from Karen, says Montgomery. Not only because cornbread is a diet staple at the jail. “She looks like cornbread,” said the sheriff. “OK, burnt cornbread,” he laughed.
Montgomery, who was instrumental in the passage of legislation making animal abuse a felony in Arkansas, says not everyone welcomed the idea of a cat in the office, but it didn’t take long for Cornbread to win them over.
“She has even won the hearts of the most ardent non-cat lovers,” said Montgomery. “Now, I see those who objected to her the most, petting her and playing with her.”
Watching Cornbread interact with Montgomery, Stone and other staff members, she is calm and well-mannered as they described. Stone said, “Even with phones ringing, sirens blaring and people coming and going, she sleeps through it all.”
In the morning, Cornbread is waiting at the door for Montgomery or Stone to come in and open the office. During the day, she sleeps on a bed in the conference room, on a chair in the sheriff’s office or in Stone’s office. She may also visit other offices, hang out at the reception desk or even venture into the waiting room of the reception area, much to the surprise of visitors.
The jobs of the sheriff and his staff are stressful, admitted Montgomery, who quickly added, “We are so blessed to live and work in Baxter County where the community has been so supportive.” He said the cards, letters, emails and phone calls they get, complimenting their work, makes their stress filled jobs easier.
The sheriff believes Cornbread has had a positive effect on the entire staff.
“This is a highly stressful job,” he said, “and she has been good for relieving that stress.”
He remembered Sergeant Eric Neal, who died suddenly in January. Neal, who worked in the jail, “would look for Cornbread when he came to the office to de-stress”, he said.
Following Neal’s sudden death, Montgomery believes Cornbread sensed the loss and grief felt by everyone in the department.
Cornbread, is believed to be about seven years old. Her expenses, including food, supplies, toys and vet bills are not paid from the sheriff’s budget; they are donated or paid for by Montgomery and other staff members on a voluntary basis. Responsibilities for her care and clean up are shared by the “309 inmates.”