The Sound Of Seven Cats Purring
The first big job was naming the kittens. What a splendid opportunity, we felt, to shape the psyches of these visiting infants. The six kittens spanned the cat color range: one orange, one black, a light gray with white markings, a dark gray, and two gray and black striped tabbies.
All of these three-week old babies were males, except for one of the tabbies. The kittens came complete with an undernourished mom barely out of kittenhood herself, her ribs and hip bones stretching her skin as starkly as shadows at noon. I had just met these babies minutes before, yet already my heart wrapped around them as protectively as tree roots around the earth.
The kittens and their mom were fosters from the San Diego County Animal Control shelter, ready to be socialized into irresistible family members. Being a lifelong cat person, I had longed for decades to raise a litter of kittens, but had never seriously considered this a choice.
After all, millions of cats are put down every year in shelters all over the country because there just are not enough good homes. To bring another unwanted feline into being was never an option that I would seriously consider. So like many other childhood dreams, the yearning to experience a family of tiny kittens mischievously playing their way into adulthood lapsed into an occasional “wouldn’t
that be nice,” and was then forgotten.
Rebecca, my daughter and roommate, solved the dilemma with a suggestion to foster the residents of one of the twenty or so cages filling a room in the shelter in which she volunteered. An unending stream of moms and kittens, pregnant females, or just tiny orphaned kittens-some ill or injured-overwhelms Animal Control in spring and early summer, the height of “kitten season.”
Many of these families are strays, while others are dropped off like a sack of worn out shoes by people who think nothing of letting their cats produce unwanted babies. The county shelter, by law, has to take in all these cats, but who would make sure the babies got off to a healthy start and succeed as adoptable pets?
Even with my lifelong wish to raise a kitten family, my enthusiasm to actually commit to a foster was muted. When Rebecca first pleaded to take a litter into our home, my first thought was “what could go wrong.” I anxiously imagined damaged and smelly carpets, late night feedings, and a nebulous list of problems I could feel but not quite name. Fostering would be a good growth experience for Rebecca, though, and there were always those cute kittens, and so I hesitantly murmured okay to the idea.
Now, as I held and petted the little ones, each one having plenty of room to explore just in the palm of my hand, I marveled at their
vivid blue eyes and dollhouse-size tails. Ears the size of dainty wedding rings topped furry heads. The family collectively cried and squeaked, each kitten competing for the attention of the mother cat, or maybe just making itself known as an important new being gracing the world.
I was captivated by the natural drama of the family, the cycle of new birth and nurturing protectiveness of the mother. This would be a profound experience for me, not just for Rebecca, as our townhouse set the stage for a process of new life unchanged for millions of years.
During this first bonding session, Rebecca and I discussed the importance and challenge of choosing just the right names to get each kitten launched toward a permanent home. The black kitten, the boldest and loudest in the family, dared to wander furthest from the group. Rebecca proposed that we name him Magellan, for the fearless explorer. We both grinned at the perfection of this choice.
Soon the light gray kitten trailed after his brother, and then veered off on his own to check out his new quarters. Quickly picking up on my daughter’s reasoning, I suggested we name him Christopher, as in Columbus.
So that was two down, four kittens and the mom to go. And we needed an inspiration different from textbook explorers. On a whim, I threw out the idea that we call the orange kitten Rusty. We both liked this all-American nickname, and so the third kitten went from being a homeless cast off to tumbling down the road to family membership.
Rebecca noticed that the dark gray kitten was exceptionally quiet and didn’t much play with his lively siblings. She thought to christen him Monk. He was sweet, gentle, and meditative-the title fit him naturally.
All this effort eroded our creativity as we began to run out of ideas. Giving up all pretense of originality, we decided call the mother Lucky, since her family was rescued and she finally was going to get enough to eat. Lucky purred, nursed, and groomed her kittens nonstop, seeming to appreciate her improved circumstances and fitting name.
The two tabbies, so alike we thought of them as twins, had to remain as just “the bobcats” for a day or two. I amused myself for hours
thinking of names and then discarding them. Colleagues must have wondered why I smiled to myself in the middle of meetings.
The female finally became Amy, after the only girl in a family of six first cousins in Philadelphia. Her little brother, the last nameless sibling, did not seem too bothered by his fate as he trailed his mom everywhere in a ceaseless quest to be the first and last one of the litter to nurse every time the mom stretched out for a minute to rest.
Inspiration finally grabbed me as I listened to a Los Angeles radio news station interview with Antonio Villaraigosa, the then newly elected mayor. This particular Antonio had gotten off to a rough start in life, and credited his mom with his current success. She had never lost faith in him, and he remained a loving and devoted son. Our little boy bobcat flashed before me with that image, and he was graced with the name Antonio.
Every day I rushed home from work to delight in the kittens. The feline family became my refuge for pleasurable and relaxing thoughts as I tacked from one crisis to another in corporate life. The experience of bonding to the cats was bittersweet, as I had to reluctantly admit the thought that one day the fosters would have to go to another home. How could we know the kittens would be cherished and spoiled by another human family?
As they grew, the babies stayed true to the personalities that inspired their names. Christopher would climb up my leg just like a tree trunk-didn’t matter if I were wearing pants or not. I learned to wear pants around him. Magellan wandered whenever he could, and Antonio tracked close to his mother. Each day their cuteness increased, snowballing to a level that made me feel like putting on “cuteness sunglasses” just to be able to look at them.
Fostering embodied the lesson that all growth and happiness must be earned through hard work. The daily drudgery of changing
bedding and cleaning paradoxically nurtured our love for the family and satisfaction in our commitment as fosters.
At first the kittens had to stay in Rebecca’s bathroom all the time, until they were litterbox trained. So every time we went into her bathroom, there was litter and cat food all over the floor, and the smell of excrement and dirty bedding. The kittens would seep out the bathroom door each time Rebecca opened it, and I had to smile as she scooped up two or three kittens as another one or two raced out the door.
Lucky was an indulgent mom, letting her babies nurse whenever they wanted, which was just about all the time. She purred and licked her kitties, and kept them clean until they learned to use the litterbox. No matter how much Lucky ate, she did not gain any weight. We worried she did not have enough milk to satisfy her babies. Her ribs and hips remained stubbornly outlined against her skin, and the kittens, crying with hunger, seemed frozen at their original size.
The smell, laundry, and messy bathroom were annoying, but the precarious health of the family distressed and frightened us. Lucky had chronic diarrhea, we guessed from the food the shelter gave to us for her. The kittens did not seem to gain weight. Maybe the mom
had been malnourished when she was pregnant. Maybe the family shared an allergy or genetic defect.
Magellan developed bloody diarrhea first, followed by several of his siblings. Rebecca took all the kittens and the mom to the shelter for treatment. The overstretched staff there gave her medicine to try, and repeatedly treated the family for nonexistent worms. The kittens, miniscule for their age, had to grow to a magic two pounds before they could be put out for adoption. Two pounds-we didn’t think we’d ever get them there.
In late July, after we had been fostering about six weeks, we returned the kittens to the shelter for a week as we traveled to a family reunion in Philadelphia. With trepidation and sadness, we left them in a cage, huddled around their mom behind metal bars. While I was in Philadelphia with my birth family, I worried about our feline family, defenseless against the well-meaning but understaffed and under funded shelter bureaucracy.
The day after we got home, Rebecca rushed to the shelter to rescue our fosters and bring them home. But the kittens no longer existed as a family-in one short week, the shelter had split them up.
Amy and Christopher were big enough to adopt, so we dreamed that all the work teaching them to be happy and loving kitties would pay off with good homes. Lucky and Monk, still plagued with persistent diarrhea, were too underweight to come with us, and beyond the resources of the shelter to care for. Lucky lived up to her name once more. Instead of being put down, she and Monk went to a private rescue group, who would take them to a regular vet and give them special care. To this day, I wonder what happened to them.
Rusty, Magellan, and Antonio were our new pared-down family. Rusty and Magellan had gotten bigger in a week, but Antonio looked as if he’d shrunk. A week in a cage, away from his mom, had turned him into an apathetic little boy who barely would eat and moved even less.
As Rusty and Magellan wrestled and chased paper balls, Antonio slumped with glazed eyes. I petted and carried him, desperate for a
recovery. My spirit plunged as each day failed to bring any improvement, and a persistent sadness veiled my thoughts. His severe diarrhea would not respond to any medication. He turned his back on life, and teetered at the edge of leaving us. I tried to rationalize my grief by telling myself how we had helped the other kittens, but none of the siblings could substitute for this one pound sad little boy.
One day, when I expected Antonio’s tiny body would finally give out, his eyes seemed a little less glazed. He ate one or two mouthfuls of food and watched his brothers at play. Just as the Antonio he was named for did, he somehow found a way to pull himself up from rough beginnings. At his own leisurely pace, Antonio plodded back to health. And then some.
About six weeks later, when all three boys were hefty enough to be adopted, Antonio was as big as his brothers, and pulling into the lead in weight. At about fourteen weeks old, the kittens had finally eaten their way to the magic two pounds.
The kittens followed us around the house and slept with Rebecca at night. Magellan had to be on the counter every night to help me cook. They were the essence of nature in the middle of the city. Give them up-the thought split my heart, sparking anxiety and grief. How could I let them go where I could not protect them and care for them any more? But we had taken them in as fosters. The whole
idea of the process was to give them back. My mind raced from the tension.
I was the mom, the homeowner, and had to decide. Rebecca would gladly adopt all three kittens, and half the other cats at the shelter besides. Three cats just felt like too big a permanent commitment to me. We decided to keep Magellan, because he rasped us with kitten kisses and, as a black cat, would be the hardest to find a home for. Shelters are full of black cats-they are usually the last to be adopted because people don’t think their color is very interesting.
Rebecca set out for the shelter with the three boys. The plan was to fill out the paperwork to adopt Magellan, and leave him overnight for the required neutering. The shelter put Rusty into the public kitten area, and he was adopted before Rebecca even left the building. He had grown into a friendly and handsome kitty, and some fortunate family was gaining a top notch companion. This marvelous ending for us and promising beginning for Rusty was the ideal payoff for the fostering process.
Again, Antonio turned our clear plan into a muddle. Rebecca wanted the shelter to keep him in the treatment room until his diarrhea was better, but they refused. With hundreds of cats to worry about, one sick kitten did not make their priority list. They were going to put Antonio right into the adoption area, where he would compete with dozens of other healthier kitties for the elusive perfect home. We feared he would be returned very quickly even if someone did adopt him.
We knew how his psyche crashed in cages. We had seen him pull away from death reluctantly, and guessed he would not pull away again. So back to our house he came too. Soon he joined Magellan as an official adopted furry companion and wild playmate. The first to be named and the last to be named wrestled and chased each other, slept together and groomed each other. Rebecca won an award from the Humane Society for a Valentine’s Day picture of the brothers hugging each other.
Fostering this family taught me to take quiet pleasure and relax with the tranquil sound of seven cats purring. The satisfaction from fostering is at a core level, many universes deeper than the satisfaction of a promotion at work or some new purchase.
The kittens, with all their ups and downs, led the way to meaning and purpose as they pulled me out of my narrow world that otherwise focused on chores and an endless to-do list. I felt connected to the cycle of nature through the experience of watching them blossom into happy, wrestling teenagers. The threat of losing Antonio when he was so ill, and the exhilaration of watching him decide to engage in life, triggered a new belief in hope and recovery.
Rebecca talked about the joys of fostering and being a permanent mom to our boy kitties. “They improve my life every day. They are
the last thing I think about when I go to bed and the first thing I think about when I wake up.” Adopting the kittens gave her the motivation to go back to college, and the inspiration to study for math tests and spend nights on homework. “I want to be able to take care of the boys when they get older. If they need to go to the vet, I want to have the money.”
Taking care of the feline family also brought Rebecca and I closer. We became more patient with each other, and as we look at photos of the tiny kittens when we had the whole family, we share one smile and laugh about how we named them.
Intrigued? Consider fostering. There are so many animals who need you, and you will save lives.
If you love animals, think about your diet as well. You can use our Whole Foods Blog Finder to target informative, fun postings on whole foods, plant-based diets. Quick information at no cost!
Blog posting by Janice Stanger, Ph.D. Janice authored The Perfect Formula Diet: How to Lose Weight and Get Healthy Now With Six Kinds of Whole Foods. This easy-to-follow eating plan is built on a whole foods, plant-based diet that can prevent, and even reverse, most chronic disease. Janice loves all her kitties and grandkitties, and can’t imagine a family without them.