Cute Kitten Friday: The Joys and Perils of Fostering
For the last several years, I’ve volunteered to clean up after and socialize cats at a couple of local shelters. The Seattle Humane Society is a private organization, supported entirely by donations. It adheres to a no-kill policy, which means it does not euthanize adoptable animals. As such, it requires that people wishing to surrender an animal first make an appointment and also donate something toward the continued care of their former pet.
The local shelter for which I now volunteer is a county shelter, required to accept all animals that come through its doors. It doesn’t have the luxury of being no-kill for it receives far too many surrenders to be able to successfully place them all. While sick, dangerous, and unsociable animals are most likely to be euthanized, far too many healthy, adoptable animals also die each year because there are simply no homes for them.
It’s not for lack of trying. The shelter not only adopts animals out of its main location, but also teams with a major pet store chain to shelter cats and kittens in its adoption rooms and to hold weekend kitten fairs and dog adoption events. Still, it’s not enough. The poor economy here in North Carolina, which has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the nation, has exacerbated an already bad situation. Far more people are surrendering their animals than usual and, as a result, a shelter designed to house 800 to 900 animals is currently housing about 1500.
Compounding the overcrowding problem is the fact that it’s kitten season, that time of year between early spring and late fall (peaking in the summer months) when most mamma cats give birth, thus flooding animal shelters and rescue organizations with scores of homeless kittens. Female cats can start having kittens as early as six months of age, and can have as many as three litters a year. With litters averaging three to five kittens apiece that can quickly add up to a lot of cats and a set of pretty grim statistics for those who don’t find homes.
To reduce overcrowding and increase an animal’s chance of getting adopted, most shelters run foster programs. Volunteers take animals into their homes, allowing them to get a break from stressful shelter situations, recover from colds or other medical conditions, and socialize with humans. Kittens will generally stay with their foster family for two or three weeks until they’re old enough for their final set of shots and can be spayed or neutered (which can be done at the point the kitten weighs two pounds, provided it’s in good health). Neither the Seattle Humane Society nor our local shelter allow people to adopt animals that haven’t been fixed. Many shelters have adopted this policy because it provides an effective means of mitigating the animal overpopulation problem.
This kitten season has been particularly brutal in our area of North Carolina. A few weeks ago, the volunteer coordinator of the shelter’s foster program sent out an email to shelter volunteers asking anybody with space to spare if they could take in some kittens. We have a large and largely unused guest room in our house. A couple of our household cats occasionally sleep in the guest bed but, otherwise, nobody enters it. It’s now a temporary kitten sanctuary.
We took in our first foster litter a few weeks ago. Initially, we agreed to house three kittens; we ended up with five: three white siblings, a little brown tabby, and her grey and white brother. All had kitty colds and needed medication for a few days but, for the most part, they were clean and in good health. And cute. Awesome cute. And friendly. Touch one and it purred instantly. We named them Sergei, Nikolai, Zoya (the White Russians), Igor, and Larissa.
For the first couple of days, they remained content to stay within the confines of the kitten room. But as they got over their colds and gained some confidence, they wanted to explore further and meet the household cats who’d frequently hang outside the guest room, playing footsies with the kittens when they stuck their tiny paws out the space between the floor and the bottom of the door.
The first to bolt the room the second I opened the door were Zoya and Igor. It didn’t take long for the rest to follow suit. By the end of the first week, I’d open the door and four or five kittens would stampede out, fast as their little legs could move them. Our two youngest cats thought this was great fun. All of a sudden, they’d acquired a host of new playmates to chase up and down the stairs and around the house. I got a lot of exercise gathering up kittens, returning them to the guest room, only to have the ones I’d previously captured dart out again. Eventually, I gave up. The kittens were healthy, and our cats weren’t upset by the little intruders. So, I let them stay out while I cleaned up their litter, dug their toys out from under the dresser, and swept down their room.
You can probably sense where this story is going. Ten to fifteen minute outings turned into outings of a few hours and, of course, we fell in love with the kittens–one in particular, Nikolai, an adorable white fellow with two tiny streaks of grey on the top of his head. Nikolai chose his mark well. He glommed on to my husband, lying across his chest and giving him kitten kisses, all while purring like a furry little machine. The Russian was hooked and decided we couldn’t part with Nikolai.
When the day came to return the kittens to the shelter, I packed four of them into the carrier in which they’d arrived and put Nikolai in a separate one. Larissa, Igor, and Zoya received a clean bill of health, but Sergei still had an eye infection, so needed further fostering. He returned to our house with his brother. It became clear the two had bonded with each other. Where one went, the other usually followed. They wrestled each other, cleaned each other, and slept with each other. A couple of days after Sergei came back to the house, I began thinking he probably should stay with us. Fortunately, the Russian was the first to say “we can’t let him go back to the shelter; he might get killed.”
And so, our first time out, we were double foster failures (Nikolai is sitting in my lap purring as I type this essay).
We have a second set of five foster kittens now: Jack Bauer, Habib Marwan (the 24 kitties), Barsik, Eric, and Sheila. They came to us in rougher shape than the first set, who I suspect were the result of someone’s pet cat getting pregnant. The new set, who come from two or three different litters, were found as strays. Four were tiny, no more than six or seven weeks old. All of them came to us with fleas, since treated, as well as eye infections and mouth sores, which were medicated. Three were scared of humans and would run to hide when I entered the room. Two have have since come around and have become quite friendly. The third is a work in progress. If I approach him slowly, he’ll sometimes let me pet him and scratch his belly. Fortunately, he doesn’t hiss or growl, which would greatly limit his chances at adoption. But he probably won’t grow into a cuddly cat.
We’ve had them for about a week now, and they’re growing bigger, healthier, and more playful. This time, however, we’re playing by a different set of rules. The two boldest kittens–Shelia and Habib–zip out the door on a regular basis. I scoop them up as quickly as possible and put them back in the guest room. No more mixing it up with the household cats. No more spending too much time with The Russian, who’s far more likely to get attached to one of them than I am. Having spent time socializing cats at the shelter, I’ve learned how to detach a bit.
Still, the experience is bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s gratifying to see the kittens grow in strength and health and to know that, by taking them in, we make room in the shelter for other cats and probably save the lives of some older ones who are more difficult to adopt. It’s also gratifying to see a scared little creature transform into a loving pet. Plus, we get to enjoy the fun of having kittens around without running the risk of becoming hoarders. On the other hand, it’s hard to say good-bye, not knowing what will become of the kittens for whom you’ve cared; whether they’ll get adopted or not; whether the homes they’ll end up in will be good homes with people who’ll love them and take good care of them. At least we know that, leaving the shelter, they’ll have all their initial vaccines and will be fixed, so that they can’t produce more litters of unwanted kittens. Some will no doubt be pampered. Others will have more difficult lives. But at least they’ll have a chance they might not otherwise have had.