One Monday last October, after a weekend of cold rain and strong winds, I stopped to check in on the dumpster cats. The dumpsters were gone but the cats remained, the only home they knew, littered with broken glass and Styrofoam containers. A kind soul had built a wooden shelter and the chicken bones scattered about told me a fellow caretaker had recently been there to share her meal. I was walking back to the car when I heard a distant, urgent cry. I sighed, took a deep breath and went back, afraid of what I would find. The tiny black kitten was trying to crawl under the brambles, eyes not yet open, searching for Mom and her milk. Nearby were two dead kittens. I found another five kittens, alive, under the shelter.
The weather was turning cold and raccoons, foxes, and hawks prowled the area. I grabbed a canvas tote bag and placed the six tiny bodies inside. I called the local SPCA. They were full to capacity. I didn’t bother calling the Animal Control agency. Overwhelmed with discarded animals, they would kill them. I wrapped the dead kittens in a rag. I would bury them along side my own dearly departed cats. I drove to the vet’s office.
The kittens were less than a week old. Deaf and blind, they mewed for warmth and nourishment. The vet brought out a small carrier with a heating pad and we placed the kittens inside. She brought out formula and showed me how to feed the kittens using a small baby bottle. They struggled against the unnatural nipple, refusing to feed. I started to question my impulsive decision. I would have to feed them every two hours and then wipe their bottoms so they would eliminate their waste. I thought about the mother cats, which now must be frantic. I felt guilty and suddenly inadequate for the job. Should I bring them back and hope for the best? It was then that the first kitten angel arrived. Others would follow.
Tammy was getting ready to leave for the day. She told me with six to feed and clean every two hours, it would be next to impossible for one person to do. She offered to take three of them. I gratefully accepted. I gathered up the supplies and took the other three home.
My husband was not pleased. He was not a cat lover but married me despite the fact that I was. He wanted me to return them and let nature take its course. I remembered the dead kittens still in the car. They were older and bigger and had not survived. No, I couldn’t take the chance.
Now calmer, I realized what I had committed to. I called my Aunt Drene. She was retired and agreed to take care of the kittens while I was at work. I spent the first of many nights on the couch, setting the alarm for two-hour intervals, many of which came and went without any sleep at all. I spoke to Tammy often and we became friends discussing how much to feed them and what color their poop should be.
My aunt and I marveled at how fast they grew. We watched their eyes open and their ears stand up. Their sharp, protective claws didn’t retract so before it occurred to us to wear gardening gloves, our hands were bloody shreds as they squirmed with obsessive hunger for the bottle. After their 3-week check-up, we transitioned them to wet kitten food. They smelled it, walked in it, fell in it, and eventually managed to get some of it in their mouths. Cleaning them took on a completely new dimension. Litter box training was easier for us than the kitten trying to use it while his siblings jumped on his tail and back. It was an amazing experience.
My sister Tracie adopted the orange male, named Pumpkin. He is the love of her life. My friend Cindy adopted the gray female named Diana. After losing her husband the year before, Diana brought new life into her home. We shared pictures and videos. I pretended to look for a home for the remaining black kitten but that didn't fool my husband. I was worried because black cats are the least likely to be adopted and the most often euthanized. Eventually, my husband grew attached to the kitten and named him Bob. He dotes on him like a son.
In the meantime, Tammy introduced me to Hugh and Anne, a couple working with PETA to trap, neuter and release stray cats. A female cat can have three to four litters a year, giving birth to hundreds of kittens over her lifetime. I worked with them to have the dumpster cats tested for disease, fixed, and given rabies shots. They helped me get straw to replace the blankets I had put down. The blankets would get wet and freeze but the straw would drain and dry out.
It was a cold morning in January when I met my fellow caretaker. Her name was Irene and she was crying. Four of the cats had been shot. Her husband had taken them away and buried them. Horrified and angry, I called the local newspaper and found a reporter willing to write this story. Afterwards, the Sheriff’s office, the Humane Society and Alley Cat Allies contacted me, all sharing the trauma of the incident, and pledging support.
Tammy found homes for the other three kittens. The other black one went to a little boy who dreamed of a kitten of his own, the muted calico went to a family who recently lost their cat, and the other calico went to a woman who handcrafted a precious basket just for her new baby. When an older kitten showed up at the site, hissing and terrified, we thought he was already too feral. But my aunt missed the babies she cared for and took him. Afraid of everyone but her, he is now a mischievous, loving, male kitten named Tater.
I continue to feed the dumpster cats who now come running when they hear my car. I worry about new cats or kittens that may be dumped there by heartless humans who can soothe their guilty conscience with the knowledge that someone else is caring for them. I learned a lot from this experience and would do it again. I don’t know if cats have Fairy Godmothers but I know there are kitten angels out there, just waiting to be called on again.