Today I sterilized the baby bottles and nipples, ran four loads of laundry with extra Clorox, and folded and sorted by size. It’s a bit of work to do all that. Why? Well, it’s kitten season, or almost kitten season. I foster for the Seattle Animal Shelter. I am in a specialized category; I am a “bottle baby” foster. This means that I get the very smallest of the orphaned kittens. There are a handful of us that do this work.
How small? Well the smallest I’ve had came in around 4 ounces. Usually, they are more like 8-10 ounces. Often their eyes are still closed or just barely open when I get them. We are talking VERY small. I like to take pictures of them next to my TV remote control, or next to a shoe, just to give my friends some perspective on their size.
As I am folding the laundry, which consists mostly of polar fleece and towels, I try to remember just how tiny these kittens are. It’s hard to keep that in perspective when it is FOUR full loads of laundry, pieces range from a square foot up to blanket sized. How can something that is less than one pound use that much stuff? And yet, they do.
Being a bottle baby foster is a huge undertaking. When they are less than a week old, they eat every two hours around the clock. Each week, as long as they are growing, you can add an hour between feedings. After the second week of waking every two-to-four hours to feed them, I start doing things like hanging up the phone and putting it in the refrigerator. By week four or five they are sleeping through the night and getting ready to be fully weaned, and I’m pretty much back to my regular sleep patterns.
Why do I do it? If you knew how many times I’ve asked myself that question…
It is the most amazing experience. Imagine holding a living being that fits in one hand, is almost asleep, purring and with a belly that is so full it is bigger than its head. When the purring stops, they are asleep. When a kitten is safe, warm and well fed, it has got to be the most satisfied being on the planet. And holding it awhile, letting it feel safe as it sleeps is a magical experience, no matter how many times you do it.
As a personal growth counselor and trainer, watching the kitten learn and grow is just natural and fun. There are developmental markers to watch for; like the day they stand, when their eyes open, when they figure out there is a larger world than just the sofa and try to figure out how to get to the floor, the first time their backs arch and hair stands up, and the next few days as they try to scare themselves to do it again, and the day they realize that they have a name. There are also the developmental markers that a foster mother dreads; the day they figure out how to escape from their pen, the day they learn that the wall hanging is actually a swing, and the day they figure out how to take Kleenex out of the box or unroll the toilet paper. It all happens in a few short weeks. Each developmental marker is a triumph for then, a triumph for life.
Every kitten is different; each has their own little quirks and preferences. How nature makes so many varieties never ceases to impress me. And yet, there are so many ways that they are alike. Each life is unique, precious and somehow connected. The kittens remind me of that constantly.
By the second day with them, they know my voice, my touch and that my presence means food and comfort. I often forget how well they know me, until they remind me. When they are a little older, and running around the house, they seek me out to take a nap on. I am part of their litter, I am momma. What species they think they are is a good question.
They come to me because they have arrived at the shelter without a mother. Sometimes, they were born to feral mothers and picked up when their mothers were trapped and spayed (the Seattle feral cat program does an amazing job.) Sometimes they come because their mother died and the owners brought them to the shelter, some come because a citizen found the nest and didn’t see a mother cat, many times, I don’t know their story, just where they were found (the corner of 52nd and 5th.) In any event, they need help.
The hardest part for me is that some don’t make it. I’ve held small kittens in my hands as they died, not being able to do anything but to stay with them in their last minutes, and I’ve sat at pet emergency rooms in the middle of the night and made the decision to put the kitten down. When I first started to foster, I swore I would never let any of my fosters die. I would be the perfect foster parent. I have learned some humility since then. It is not within my power to keep them all alive. I am only the temporary care giver. I am only human.
Each death has taught me more about life than I can describe. Each death has been a different lesson. The first lesson was the hardest. The kitten had been sick for a couple of days, and I had been working around the clock to support him. He was a very determined little guy which made tube feeding him an adventure every time. When a kitten is congested, they can’t use a bottle, so you have to feed this long, very thin tube down to their stomach, the tube is attached to a large syringe filled with kitten formula. When you fill their bellies, they start purring and fall asleep.
I thought he was getting stronger, I was still absolutely sure I could keep him alive. Kittens can die fast…very fast. I still remember the moment, I was holding him, and I suddenly knew that there was nothing I could do. This little life I was “in charge of” had just slipped out of my control. Something in me let go in that moment. I was suddenly just a small part of this bigger experience, no longer in charge of his life. I held him, and watched the life leave this little body, knowing I was witnessing something I really couldn’t comprehend.
What I let go of was a control of life that I had been unsuccessfully grasping for most of my life. There are things in this world that we don’t have control of. By letting go of what I don’t have control of, I gained control of a bit more of my life. That little guy taught me so much, he broke my heart and he made me so much stronger. And, he has made every kitten that does survive just a little more precious. I only foster them, something else keeps them alive.
Carla Camou, NLP Trainer and Personal Change work: www.nlpinseattle.com