LOS ANGELES – Oh, please, not another dead kitten.
My wife, Ikuko, and I exchanged glances. No word was needed.
The approximately 1 week old kitten we had just picked up from a shelter in Los Angeles was much smaller than we expected in the photo online, about the same size as our last foster kitten.
And this one, despite our best efforts, did not survive. He never took the shot of bottle feeding and gradually got weaker. After six days, we rushed him back to the shelter for veterinary care. He died a few hours later.
We had successfully bred a dozen kittens before. Losing one – well, statistically speaking, it was inevitable. About half of bottle-fed kittens fail to do so. But knowing does not make things easier.
“Should we take it back?” I asked, gazing nervously at the fragile bird-like creature, so new to the world she could barely open her eyes.
“No,” Ikuko replied. “Let’s give him love.”
So we gave the kitten a name: Lupine. And we gave him love.
It’s hard to accommodate baby animals, I’m not going to water it down. You can be awake most of the night manipulating feedings. There will be damage. You are constantly watching to make sure the little one is not under your feet or in danger.
But every little milestone – first meal, first step, first poo – is a small act of grace in an otherwise jaded world.
“Foster care, especially with baby kittens, is an exciting and sometimes scary experience,” said Michelle Sathe, spokesperson for Los Angeles-based Best Friends, a national nonprofit animal welfare group.
In Southern California, she told me, “there may be 10,000 or more dogs and cats looking for a home at any given time.”
We’ve all seen stories of how pet adoptions picked up during the pandemic. People felt lonely and maybe a little scared, and bringing home a four-legged friend brought emotional relief to millions of people.
Sadly, there have also been stories of some shelters filling up again as people turn around their pandemic friends and prepare to resume normal lives.
I asked Sathe if these turns are rough on the creatures. Isn’t it heartbreaking for a dog or cat to bond with a human and then be rejected?
Sathe replied that any time spent outside of a cage is positive.
“Even if you’re just spending a week with foster care, it’s a week the dog or cat wasn’t at the shelter,” she said. “And I think animals are quite adaptable. I think they are successful.
What many people may not realize is that public and private shelters rely on the community to help manage the thousands of orphaned or abandoned animals in search of a home.
The space in the shelter is so limited that many dogs and cats must be slaughtered for medical or behavioral reasons, or simply because they require more care than the shelter can provide.
“Newborn kittens are the most vulnerable part of our shelter population,” said Dana Brown, general manager of LA Animal Services, which operates six city-run facilities.
Need for affection and attention, 24 hour bottles – “We just don’t have the staff for that,” Brown admitted. If a newborn kitten cannot be placed in foster care right away, it will almost certainly be euthanized. Often there is no other choice.
“It’s something that’s very difficult for us,” Brown told me.
This is also why we constantly need to step in, if possible, and help homeless creatures find their place in the world.
“Even if you make a foster family for just a few days, it makes a difference,” said Allison Cardona, deputy director of LA Animal Care and Control, which operates seven county-run shelters.
Ikuko and I never imagined ourselves as foster families, although we have had cats since the early days of our relationship.
I had always wanted a doggie too, but Ikuko was reluctant to bring a dog into our home where the cats were happy. That is to say no dogs for us.
That changed during a 2014 visit to a shelter, which we did from time to time before the pandemic just to see if any cats or dogs needed treatment.
Ikuko and I were wandering among the dog cages when we spotted a mustard-colored dog who looked utterly desperate. He was sitting in the back of his cage, his head bowed, his fur lifeless, his brown eyes saying, “I don’t understand why this is happening.
He was a big dog, strong, solid. A DNA test would identify him as a mix of Golden Retriever and Saint Bernard. It was Teddy. I share this because Teddy would play a decisive role in our future hospitality activities.
On a whim, we asked if we could interact with him. A member of the shelter staff led Teddy from his cage to an enclosure where we were able to get to know each other. It was immediately obvious that he had received some hard blows.
He flinched when you made contact. He didn’t want his head touched. He didn’t quite know how to behave around people.
But he was kind – and intuitive. Teddy quickly understood who held the deciding vote in our small government, and on his first interaction with Ikuko, he met her gaze and leaned against her in a gesture of confidence.
He came home that day.
As anyone who has a pet knows, there is something magical about the fact that an emotional connection is made between different species. It’s also obviously a long-term commitment (or should be, although it doesn’t always work that way).
The reception is different. It’s a short-term deal. Child care, with fur.
Our introduction to this world was certainly selfish. Our son needed to accumulate a few hours of community service for the school. Reception of a qualified animal of refuge. We collected three kittens from NKLA, a non-profit shelter run by Best Friends that aims to end euthanasia.
Our first foster kittens were around 3 weeks old when they arrived – still bottle-fed but old enough to be out of the danger zone.
It might seem counterintuitive, but encouraging multiple kittens is easier than just one. They play together and have fun with each other. When we sleep, they all sleep.
No less useful, there is almost always a brilliant one in the group who understands things faster than others – how to eat solid food, where to do business. Others will follow his example.
The biggest eye-opener for us, however, was that Teddy didn’t just want to be involved, he was good at it.
Teddy, all 80 pounds of him, kept a big brother’s eye on the kittens’ exuberance, pushing them with his snout if they wandered where they weren’t supposed to go. He let them snuggle up and even climb on top of him.
The kittens, in turn, accepted Teddy as the alpha, the boss, and seemed more comfortable with him. This, we have learned, is a major advantage in finding forever homes for little kittens.
“It’s a huge selling point,” Brown told LA Animal Services. “If a kitten is already suitable for other animals or children, it is much easier to place it in a house. “
The three kittens found a home, and after taking a break for a few months, we returned to the host pool.
We have since hosted up to four at a time and a few singletons. Most were still bottle-fed. Some were on the verge of becoming felines.
OK, I’ll finally get back to little Lupine. But first, a quick word on good intentions.
Shelter operators say most of their kittens are brought in by friendly people who discover a litter of cubs in an alley or under a bush. They assume that the kittens must have been abandoned by their mother.
“Nine times out of 10, mum comes back,” Brown said. “She’s probably just looking for food.”
Look closely. If the kittens seem well fed and relatively clean, Mama Cat takes care of it, and that’s better than being in a shelter.
“Try to observe the kittens for an hour or two, if you can,” Brown advised. “See if mom comes back. If you don’t have time to wait, call a shelter and we’ll see if we can send someone to take a look.
Once a newborn kitten enters the shelter system, the hunt begins for a foster parent to take over, well, everything. Intimidating, yes, but most shelters will provide free training, as well as the necessary materials – formula, bottles, blankets, heating pad.
There are also tons of videos online that will show you how to take care of toddlers.
Don’t worry about making mistakes. The more you do it, the better you become. And don’t worry (too much) about toddlers deteriorating.
All of the shelter workers I spoke to said they understood what Ikuko and I went through after our last little foster family passed away. Most said they had also lost a kitten or a puppy.
“This is something we need to talk more about with caregivers,” Brown admitted. “It happens, and there is a grieving process when it happens.”
Cardona from LA Animal Care told me the same thing. “There is no shame when this happens,” she said. “It’s almost never your fault.”
Our initial apprehension about Lupin’s short stature dissipated when he learned, after a few false starts, how to bottle-feed and began to gain weight. He’s been with us for about a month and has more than doubled in size.
Once he got his hind legs to cooperate with his front legs, he started moving around the kitchen like a miniature Land Rover. Teddy always keeps a close eye on Lupine as he explores his expanding territory, but I feel like Teddy is asking the same questions we are.
Are we going to keep fattening it up and then find it a home forever? Or are we going to become “foster fails” and hang on to the little guy?
I know what my Twitter friends will say after all the Snickers-sweet photos and videos of Lupine I’ve posted.
My social media circle will also note that I haven’t mentioned our scene-stealing cat Jupiter yet.
We adopted Jupiter in March after Ikuko saw his photo on the West LA Refuge site. She asked a member of staff to let her take a closer look via video, and two hours later Jupiter was a member of the family.
He was 6 months old, not a foster kitten. Its former owner had entrusted it to the shelter for reasons I will never understand. He’s an outrageously cool cat.
Jupiter wasted no time bonding with Teddy, and the two are now best friends. They hang out together, sleep together, walk together, fight over control of Teddy’s dog beds.
The arrival of Lupine, as it often happens, upset the delicate balance of our little zoo. Jupiter began to spend more time in the backyard. Sora, our shy calico, also a lifeguard, has become even more reclusive.
For the sake of our other cats, we are looking to find a new home for Lupine when he is old enough.
It would also open the door for us to a new foster family, to be there for another baby who just wants to love and be loved.
And that’s the whole point.