Cashier Laura Giannotta pointed at the gold-and-black calico cat that was roaming near the tomatoes in the store’s produce section.
“That cat is what made the Saints win on Thursday,” said Giannotta, 63, who works at Breaux Mart on Magazine Street, where the newest Saints sensation — dubbed the “WhoCat” — made a special appearance Saturday morning.
The cat, whose real name is Zoey, is 2 years old and goes everywhere with her owner, Randall Pumilia, 36, a lifelong New Orleanian who lives in Algiers.
Images of Zoey seated on Pumilia’s lap at the Saints game Thursday night went viral, making her a de facto symbol of the WhoDat nation.
Pumilia was able to bring her into the Superdome because he has a doctor’s letter certifying her as an official “companion animal” that helps alleviate his anxiety. Others might call her an emotional-support animal.
Pumilia sums it up in less medical terms. “She’s my companionship,” he said.
Zoey most often perches on his shoulder. Sometimes, in unfamiliar places, he puts her on a leash. Occasionally, she meows to tell him that she wants to go to her safe place, the pink and melon paisley Vera Bradley cat carrier that she’s so accustomed to that she can open the zippers from the inside.
Thursday marked Zoey’s first visit to the Dome, and some believe she was the lucky charm that pushed the 1-4 Saints to defeat previously unbeaten Atlanta.
So should Pumilia take her to every game?
Giannotta nodded at the idea. “The Saints can use everything they can get at this point,” she said as she scanned Charlotte D’Ooge’s groceries.
“I believe, too. You never know what’s going to make the Saints win,” said D’Ooge, recalling one season when the Saints scored a touchdown every time she went to the bathroom. Because Saints fans have long held superstitions about what makes the team win or lose, her friends began pressuring her to spend the majority of the game in the john, she said with a grimace.
Of course, most house cats would lose their cool if someone tried to carry them into a stadium filled with thousands of screaming strangers. But Zoey wasn’t scared, Pumilia said: “If she’s scared, she gives me crazy meows. That means that I should put her in the bag.”
In fact, Zoey is cool under most circumstances, Pumilia said. She perches easily on his shoulder at Carnival parades and doesn’t get flustered on the levee for July 4th fireworks.
“If I go somewhere without Zoey, I feel lost. I feel like something’s missing. I’m looking around,” he said. “She keeps my anxiety down. With her, I can sleep.”
When he was first diagnosed with anxiety a few years ago, his doctor prescribed him some medicine. But he didn’t like the medicine’s effects, so he got rid of the pills and got the cat.
“She curls up by my leg and purrs, purrs, purrs. Then I can sleep. It works,” Pumilia said.
Even if Zoey is a few rooms away, she senses when he’s sad. “I could call my ex-wife and we could disagree about something,” he said — somehow Zoey senses his mood. “She comes right to my legs, curls up and purrs. I don’t even know how she knows. But she knows and she comes.”
Pumilia is going through a double-whammy of life changes right now: He recently lost his job as an environmental consultant and split from his wife. So he sold the two Saints season tickets he’d held in Section 624 for 12 years — partly because he was financially pinched and partly because he’d always gone to the games with his wife, he said.
But he found himself itching to see Thursday’s big rivalry game in person. So he bought a single ticket off the sidewalk. He thought maybe he could embark on a quiet new tradition, just him and Zoey.
But soon his new tradition involved the entire WhoDat nation.
When someone tweeted their photo on Thursday, he was in Section 624, visiting friends. He had no idea that his furry companion would become such a sensation.
Pumilia grinned broadly Saturday as several Breaux Mart shoppers thanked him for Thursday’s surprise victory.
“I think she was lucky,” he said, stroking his now-famous companion. “How else did we spank Atlanta like that?”