Fostering Felines

Karen Radford Treanor 


Photos by the author.

Copyright 2022  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photos by the author.
Photo by the author.
Many people have found new interests during the last two years of seemingly endless restrictions and lockdowns. There’s been a revival of sourdough bread making; air fryer purchases have skyrocketed, lots of craft shops have reported booming sales—mostly online—and animal shelters reported a much higher adoption rate than usual.

I have to admit that my life went on much as it was before, other than the inability to travel outside the state or have visitors from anywhere. Tasmania “got off lucky” due to our Premier (state governor) having locked us down tighter than a rich uncle’s wallet after the initial disease outbreak in one small corner in the Northwest. Tasmania is a small island state hanging off the bottom of the big island continent of Australia, and if the virus had achieved a foothold outside the initial locus, a lot of us wouldn’t be here to complain now.

So what have I been doing as my pandemic activity?

In a word: kittens.

Perhaps it’s another result of global warming, but the usual twice-yearly kitten season now starts sooner and runs longer. Cats seem to be maturing earlier, also—you can no longer assume that your 5 or 6-month-old kitten is still a baby. Some of the excess kittenage comes from cats belonging to people who meant to get Fluffy neutered but were blindsided by Mother Nature. Some come from unfortunate pets dumped by owners who can’t cope with a pregnant cat. Some are the offspring of feral cats, and these are among the most difficult to deal with, because they are wild animals in every sense of the term. And worst of all the reasons for the existence of surplus kittens is the misguided humans who say “Oh, I want Fluffy to have the experience of motherhood once before I get her fixed.” Madame, your cat will not miss the experience; please think of her health and well-being and do not project your own feelings onto her.

In 2020 I casually commented to a local cat society organiser that I’d had some experience taking care of infant animals. Not long thereafter she asked if I’d be willing to take care of four kittens “just for a while”, as the society was overflowing with infant furries due to an unusually busy kitten season.

Chardi, Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet turned up with a folding playpen, some food bowls, a litter tray, an assortment of toys, and a blanket. They were set up in the guest bedroom at the back of the house with all their paraphernalia.

It had been a while since I had baby animals in the house, but it didn’t take long to be reminded that as far as a kitten is concerned, a playpen is a prison, a water bowl is a recreational opportunity, a blanket is a receptacle for the return of unwanted food, and a newly-cleaned litter tray must be redecorated with all possible speed. Once the kittens had explained the ground rules to me, we settled in to get to know each other. First off, they told me they didn’t think much of their room.

The guest bedroom in our house has been known as “the cats’ room” ever since we adopted a pair of middle-aged Burmese cats many years ago. The cats had been settled in the guest bedroom, but managed to get out on the second day and rarely went in it again. One slept under the lamp on the living room table and the other claimed my husband’s lap whenever it was available, or his office chair when it wasn’t—but the term “the cats’ room” stuck.

Having established that the cats’ room was too dark, too confining and too far from whatever might be going on, the kittens exploded out into the sunroom, home office and bathroom whenever they got the chance. Post-it notes blossomed all over the house: “Kittens loose” “Keep door shut” “Please put lid down” “Don’t believe them; they have been fed twice already”.

The two older cats didn’t think much of the visitors. The elderly Burmese, who had been accustomed to relaxing in the sun room after stropping her claws on the scratching post, found the presence of the interlopers unbearable. She retired to the front living room in a huff, and a new scratching pad was installed there for her.

Our middle-aged rescue cat--who’s always been a nervous creature-- either hid in the master bedroom or perched on the woodpile on the porch, very suspicious of the small visitors.

In due course, the winery kittens left our house and were adopted. We had a month or two without visitors, but then another litter arrived. Winken, Blinken and Nod were ferals, captured on the grounds of a museum. They’d had little experience of humans, but quickly associated The Giant Hand from the Sky with food. After a week or two, patting was allowed as an acceptable accompaniment to food. Nod, the little black kitten, learned to purr first, and apparently taught her sisters who soon mastered the skill. By Week 3, all three had become quite friendly, and it was with mild regret I handed them over for adoption.

Blinken and Nod were adopted immediately, but Winken stayed on with one of the society’s officers. “She’s super lovey-dovey; I can’t sit for a minute before she’s in my lap—and she bullies the younger kittens,” Cait said when I asked about the kitten. I felt unaccountably responsible, as if I had somehow failed Winken. She was a beautifully-patterned brown tiger; anyone in want of a pet should have snapped her up by now. I took Winken back to give Cait a bit of respite, and was considering keeping the long-legged beauty when the cat society sponsored an adoption day. I brought Winken along, half hoping nobody would want her, but a mother and son started talking to her and she purred at them and before you could say “Catnip!” they had adopted Winken and her friend Cookie.

Just before Christmas a pair of kittens turned up, a tiny tigress with silk floss sprouting from her ears, and a plush white-and-tabby who was Miss Congeniality to her toe-tips. They were shortly joined by a semi-wild “tuxedo” kitten that it was hoped would learn domestication from the other two. The kittens’ arrival was a mixed blessing—our beloved old Burmese was dying and we were faced with the decision that all pet owners eventually must face. Having three active babies to cope with after Miss Cat slipped away helped the house not seem as empty. They came unnamed, so I called them Fancy, Marshmallow and Slippers—Fancy for her silky fluff and Marshmallow for her soft white pluffy vest. The black kitten with white jabot and toes became “Slippers”.

The society’s secretary ferries the furry patients around when transport is needed. Last week Cait was chauffeuring three kittens from one carer to another, and she stopped in to my house to drop off some worming pills for Marshmallow, Fancy and Slippers. Kittens are very prone to worm infestation, especially if they’ve been born to mothers that eat wild creatures like rats and rabbits.

When Cait opened the hatch of her van to get the medicine there was a wave of mephitic odour and a chorus of cries. “I think one of them has thrown up,” she said, looking into the carry cage.

I think it’s worse than that,” I said, standing upwind.

I’ve brought a big holding cage, I can transfer them into that and out of the mess,” she said.

The holding cage was four times the volume of the carry cage, and fortunately had two old towels in it. Cait fished out a damp kitten and tried to open the cage with the other hand. There was a complex system of fastenings that required two hands, if not three. I tried to work in concert with Cait to lift, slide and snap, and we eventually got the lid up and the kitten deposited. Another kitten, rather wetter and quite stinky, was pulled from the carry cage and transferred. Then the third kitten appeared. It was covered head to toe to tail tip with a hellish mix of vomit, poop and piddle, and it was not happy. It wanted comfort, and it tried its best to snuggle up to the nearest human. Hastily shutting the lid and re-engaging the locks, Cait pulled the carry cage from the van. “Could I hose this off?” she asked.

Not only could you, I think you must,” I said, stepping further back. “You use the garden hose there, and I will fetch a big bucket of soapy water.” I had to go around to the laundry door, because by this time my own foster kittens had come to the screen door and were glued to it, hoping to investigate the strange noises and smells.

Normally a carry cage would have some sort of absorbent material in it—old towels, purpose-made piddle pads, or something to absorb leakage. Because the trip was supposed to be a very quick one, the cage had not been so furnished. “I thought, ‘what could happen in a ten minute trip?’, so I didn’t put a towel in with the kittens,” Cait explained. “Another lesson learned the hard way.”

She separated the carry cage into its top and bottom parts and hosed off the worse of the muck. The hot soapy water was sluiced around, an old dish washing brush was employed vigorously, and the cage propped up in the sun.

We went to look at the caged kittens. They were running back and forth and looking very sorry for themselves. “This won’t be the best introduction for a new foster family, but on the other hand, maybe it’s best to start with the worst first,” Cait said.

You might want to bring the kittens into my laundry room and given them a bath,” I said. “This amount of stink and mess could be a step too far for new fosterers. I really don’t mind, and it will save someone having to do it later, because you can’t let them lap themselves clean with this much yuck.”

Cait carried the holding cage to my back hall and I filled the laundry sink with warm water and wool wash. Taking the least filthy kitten first, she dunked and sloshed it and then held it under the tap for a bit, massaging the soapy fur and making reassuring noises. I held out an old towel and received the soggy kitten like a midwife’s helper in a particularly messy birth. I rubbed and patted while Cait took the next kitten into the sink. Once it was clean Cait wrapped it in another towel. Now there was a problem: who could deal with the third, dirtiest, kitten? It was indescribably filthy, to the point that we could not tell what colour it was.

I had twin granddaughters, and can hold two infants at once,” I announced proudly. Cait tucked the second swaddled kitten under my left arm. I massaged its tiny head as best I could with one hand while clamping the other kitten under my other arm.

Cait took the super stinky kitten and scrubbed it and rinsed it. “There’s no other towel,” she said, looking around. “

Take the hand towel from the rack beside you. I was going to donate it somewhere anyway; it’s got a hole in it.”

Now we had three clean wet kittens wrapped in two and a half towels, and a cage on the floor with two filthy towels in it. The wet kittens were beginning to wriggle and cry: “we don’t like this, it isn’t fun anymore, let us go”.

Triplets?” Cait asked, handing me the third kitten.

She folded the dirty towels so the cleanest sides were up, and deposited the kittens, wet towels and all, in the cage. “They’ll lap themselves dry now,” she said.

Back at the van, the breeze and sunshine had gone some ways towards clearing out the miasma. Fortunately the carry cage had not there was minimal mess on the rear deck floor. A hastily spread newspaper took care of that, and the big cage was reinstalled with its cargo. By now the original carry cage had dried in the sun and could be reassembled and prepared for transporting the kittens when they got to their new foster carers.

I waved Cait and her charges off and went back into the house where my own foster kittens were bouncing around, tiny noses twitching, ears rotating like little radio-telescope dishes. So much excitement on their own doorstep!

Count yourselves lucky,” I told them. “You were due for baths today but I’ve run out of dry towels.”

A few days later, a friend came to call, having seen Slippers’ picture on the cat society’s Facebook page. “I’ve always wanted a black and white kitten, and she looks so elegant.”

Terri sat down and made friendly noises towards Slippers, who took one look and high-tailed it under the sofa. Meanwhile Marshmallow heard the invitation, hopped into Terri’s lap purring sixteen to the dozen and gazed up at her adoringly. It was love at first sight: the tuxedo kitten was forgotten and Marshmallow was spoken for by the time Terri left the house.

Meanwhile somebody else has seen Slippers’ picture and will be coming to meet her next week. We hope for a friendlier result—I’ve really been working at socialising Slippers, so with any luck she won’t run away next time.

And as for Fancy, since the day she arrived she’s been making herself at home. While I was away for a little while last week she talked my husband out of a dish of smoked salmon. She’s small, but she’s persuasive. I have a strong suspicion she’s going to be what they call a ‘foster fail’: a kitten that settles in and never leaves its temporary residence. Since our old cat went off to catch mice for Saint Peter we’ve had a cat-shaped hole in our lives that just might be filled by a small, fluffy tigress with a very big attitude.

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