Fostering kittens turns grrrs into purrs
It started with a hiss. A very long, loud, pronounced hiss.
And with that “greeting,” we met the three seven-week-old kittens we welcomed into our home July 5 in the midst of the pandemic.
My partner, Susan Finn, had not taken on an assignment as a volunteer fostering cats for the Quincy Animal Shelter for quite a while. Fostering is a program for animals that are injured, ill, too young to be adopted, or have a behavioral issue and need temporary care ― usually from five to eight weeks ― before being adopted. We don’t have cats ourselves because we travel often and spend considerable time in Florida.
In this case, the kittens — bright orange Bentley, his sister Tesla, and another girl, Fiat — were from two litters born to feral mothers who needed intense “socialization” to be comfortable with human contact. Susan took the trio back to the shelter for checkups, spaying or neutering, or shots.
In the beginning, Susan sat with the cat carrier in a spare bathroom and tried to coax out its occupants. Eventually, they cautiously emerged into our large kitchen. We erected a temporary door between the kitchen and the dining room in an attempt to keep the trio confined there. It wasn’t long before they figured a way through the door and feline chaos ensued.
The shelter provides food, litter, and medical care for the animals you agree to foster, but caretakers often spring for toys or treats. Deciding to adopt the animal you are caring for ― it’s called “foster flunk” — sometimes happens, but the caretaker must follow the same application procedure and pay the same adoption fees as a member of the general public.
The kittens had been weaned from their mothers and were eating solid food when they arrived. The kittens’ tiny stomachs required small, frequent feedings, including a 3 a.m. wake-up call when paws started to appear under the bedroom door and cries began. We had previously fostered “preemies” without mothers — Sugar and Cinnamon ― who had to be bottle-fed every few hours.
One positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been people’s willingness to step forward selflessly, in this case to help the animals. At the Quincy shelter, the paid staff is a party of one — director Kit Burke. Behind her is an army of 160 active volunteers who provide a range of services the shelter could only dream of if they were all paid.
“If I were hit by a bus tomorrow, the shelter would still be here,” Burke said. “But without the volunteers, we don’t exist.”
Shelters, deemed “essential businesses,” were allowed to stay open during the pandemic. But because the Quincy shelter operates in a building owned by the city of Quincy, the place has essentially been closed to the public since the pandemic hit in March.
For a time, there were no adoptions and the surrendering of pets was only done on an emergency basis. The care went on, much of it in foster homes. In May, the shelter started taking adoption applications and after vetting the applications, people were allowed to come there to sign paperwork and take animals home.
In early July, Quincy started opening city buildings and it gave the shelter more leeway. “Right now we’re still not open to the public, but people can see an animal online and reach out to our adoption team to take a look at animals by appointment only,” said Burke.
The shelter had put all of its dogs in foster homes during the pandemic and along the way, several of the animals were adopted by the caretakers or their friends.
Going forward, Burke said her greatest concern is the number of families who will be forced to surrender their pets due to economic circumstances. “This fall, we’ll be seeing people who have lost their jobs or their unemployment benefits having to make tough choices.”
Then there’s those who lose their housing and may have to move to places where pets are not permitted. Or those who return to their workplaces and decide they don’t have time to care for a pet.
Meanwhile, Burke said her volunteers are adjusting to what is the “new normal” when it comes to interacting with the public.
For our part, there was nothing quite so wonderful as three healthy young kittens chasing, wrestling, jumping, running, and then collapsing atop one another in one feline heap. It took only a few days for Bentley and Tesla to become more accustomed to human contact. One proven strategy is to feed the kittens baby food from our fingers; It reminds them of their mothers, and is an excellent bonding tool.
Fiat was slow to warm to us. For several weeks after Bentley and Tesla became cuddle bunnies and purring machines, she resisted being picked up and petted. But when Tesla and Bentley left for their new homes on Aug. 8 and she became a solo act, she blossomed She chased the cursor on the computer screen, loved seeing animals on TV, and cuddled with us on the bed. She would find her shoelace or ribbon and drop it at our feet: Hey, you. It’s playtime.
Susan has a picture book of our “graduates” and will be adding more pages.
As one of her final duties, she puts together a “going away” bag of the kittens’ favorite toys, samples of some of the food they had been eating, and a printed description of each that included personality quirks and favorite games.
Fiat was the last of the successfully socialized kittens to depart — on Aug. 15 — to what we like to call “their forever homes.”
Fiat’s departure hit Susan especially hard; she was sure the kitten had a look of betrayal when it was loaded into the cat carrier for the ride back to the shelter.
We are often asked if it is hard to give up the cats after purposely bonding with them. Yes, it’s hard, because the better the job we do, the harder it is to let go.