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Fostering Ferals

How a litter of kittens became a labor of love

  • Jimmy and Tippy snuggle in a basket. Nancy Peterson/The HSUS

  • Former feral kittens are looking for forever homes in shelters across the country. Nancy Peterson/The HSUS

by Nancy Peterson

Jenny, an acquaintance of mine, barely had time to unpack after moving into her first house in late March when she noticed cats under her neighbor's shed and in her backyard. She learned that the cat family consisted of a grandma, three daughters, and a granddaughter.

The cats clearly didn't belong to anyone—it was a feral cat colony. But there's this one thing about feral cat colonies: they sure can multiply if they go unchecked, which can quickly lead to trouble—both for the cats and local rescue groups (read more about kitten season here). Without Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) and a dedicated caretaker, up to 75 percent of feral kittens may die.

Jenny wanted to help her new feline neighbors. The sequence of events that follows is what thousands of caring individuals do every year around the country to make life a little better for the cats in our midst.

Nineteen's a crowd

Jenny knew she'd need to go through TNR to take care of these cats. She'd have to capture them in order to have them vaccinated and  spayed/neutered before they had a chance to have kittens.

She began the trapping process by feeding the cats. Once they were used to being fed, she would have to withhold food in order to lure the hungry cats into traps. Before she could trap them though, there were 19 kittens in all! That multiplier effect had set in, and Jenny now needed help to get all the cats.

How you can help feral cats »

She was referred to a local all-volunteer group, Metro Ferals, which provided traps and helped her trap the cats. The group helped get them spayed and neutered, vaccinated, and ear-tipped. After they recovered from their surgeries, the adult cats were returned to Jenny's yard, where she is happily caring for them, knowing that no more kittens will be born. The kittens who were left are the stars of part two of our story, and that's where I come in.

Finding a home

Because I do a lot of TNR work with feral cats, Jenny asked whether I knew anyone who could provide a foster home for these little guys. Fortunately, she had caught the kittens when they were young enough to be socialized/tamed, so the odds were relatively good.

Despite everyone's efforts (mine included), though, no one stepped up. My long list of reasons why I couldn't foster included my three cats, midnight feedings, too little time, the cost, and more. But the real reason was because I was afraid it would be too hard to give them up when it was time to adopt them into their forever homes.

In the end, however, I finally succumbed to be the foster mom. Am I glad that I did. 

Feline fun

The first day I got them, they hissed at me as if they were ferocious beasts. I had to laugh. None of them even weighed a pound.

Now I don't know who is having more fun, them—the five feral kittens—or me. Their antics are amusing and endearing. When I wake up in the morning or come home after a long day at work and they hear my voice, they mew intensely until I open the door to their room. Then they come tumbling out and begin to wholeheartedly play, play, play.

They have mastered the floor-to-ceiling cat tree as well as the use of their litter box (it's not unusual for several of them to use the litter box at the same time). They fly around the room chasing each other. When they have exhausted themselves, they climb into my lap and fall asleep.

It's been four weeks and, yes, I've fallen madly in love with Smokey, Tippy, Jimmy, Twinky, and Jenny. Will I cry when I adopt them to their new homes? Probably. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

How you can help

In addition to fostering, there are many ways to help feral cats. For example, you could volunteer as a trapper, transporter, website designer, or event planner for a feral cat organization.

Feral (unsocialized) and stray (friendly) cats produce approximately 80 percent of the kittens born each year and are the most significant source of cat overpopulation. Metro Ferals and hundreds of other organizations across the U.S. practice TNR to manage feral cat populations. If you or someone you know is feeding feral or stray cats, find local help before more innocent kittens are born.

Nancy Peterson is Cats Program manager at The HSUS.

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