LADYSMITH, B.C. -- Akiko has had a thing for animals since growing up in Japan with a dog named Leo.

“My sister loved Leonard DiCaprio,” she laughs, while flipping through pictures of her past pets. “That’s where [the name] Leo came from!”

Akiko loved the idea of working with animals when she grew up.

“I wanted to be a vet,” she says. “But my [marks] weren’t really good when I was young.”

So Akiko went travelling after school instead and ended up visiting 10 countries.

“I don’t think about future,” she smiles. “I just live in the moment always.”

Although the moment she arrived in Canada, she saw a future here.

“I feel like this is like my home,” she recalls with a smile.

Akiko says that one of the ways to make a house a home is with animals. So she adopted two cats, Jen and Steve

“Calling them human names makes us laugh,” Akiko laughs.

It’s a joy she shares on their Instagram account, where although Jen is the more extroverted of the two, Steve’s the one who always seems to celebrate holidays in costume.

“I feel like he’s a kitten still,” Akiko says. “But he’s two years old.”

Two years ago is when Akiko was looking for something to battle boredom during the winter and happened upon a needle-felting kit to make a sheep.

“I don’t know why I [considered buying it],” Akiko laughs. “I’ve never really do[ne] any art before.”

But she did love animals, and did “live in the moment,” so she decided why not try and do it.

“I felt some connection to it,” she explains.

Akiko says the sheep turned out well, at least before Steve and Jen felt some connection to it with their claws (there’s a photo on their Instagram showing the sheep laying on the ground with its wool pulled apart).

It turned out so well she started teaching herself how to make more animals.

“And everybody was like, ‘Oh my God!” she smiles. “That is really cute.”

The compliments gave her the confidence to really challenge herself. Instead of crafting charming cartoon-style animals, Akiko decided to make detailed, realistic-looking cats.

She started hand-painting detailed eyeballs and selecting complex combinations of coloured wool to recreate the patterns on the animal’s fur.

“It’s hard work,” she says, showing me how she uses sharp needles to layer and shape wool into an object. “And I have to keep staring at photos of what I’m making.”

But after looking at dozens of pictures of the animal from different angles countless times, after sculpting the different wools for more than 30 hours per subject, Akiko has discovered that (after just two years of trying), she has the talent to transform what she sees in two-dimensional photos into three-dimensional cat portraits.

“I super enjoy making it,” she says with a smile.

On her Island Needle Felting Instagram page, you can see the work Akiko has donated to raise funds for a local animal shelter, work that’s inspired videos of real cats Cheddar and Brie to greet their remarkable likenesses with prolonged and seemingly appreciative sniffs. It’s work that Akiko couldn’t feel more grateful to do.

“I feel like I’ve finally found something I’m really good at!” she smiles.

And that feels even better than becoming a vet or marrying Leonardo DiCaprio.

“Oh!” Akiko says with a big laugh. “I’m over the moon!”