When they’re young, kittens romp around until they collapse into a sleepy ball of fur. They pounce with boundless curiosity at every toy, paper bag and hand within a paw’s reach. They seek cuddly companionship with nearby people friends.
Then they grow into adults, and can still be cute, but such a pet’s newfound independence and growing aloofness may feel bittersweet to its human kin, begging the question: How might a kitten lover keep young cats in their lives—without ever worrying about them growing up?
Kay and Dana Mackenzie think they have found the answer, and it lies in fostering kittens, which allows the couple to play with baby cats, while doing some important animal welfare work along the way.
The Mackenzies volunteer at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, and over the course of the eight years that they’ve spent fostering kittens until they’re ready for adoption, the Mackenzies have seen a steady flow of youngins—155 so far—come through their home.
The vast majority of pets in need of fostering are puppies and kittens. “They only need a two-to-three-week stay, sometimes a month or two, to become adult enough that we can vaccinate them and spay or neuter them,” says Jen Walker, programs and development manager for the shelter.
The shelter also organizes home visits, which can be anything from an overnight to a three-week stint, to learn how each animal interacts with others. The visits provide valuable information in matching a pet with the appropriate new home.
Working with a team, Kay Mackenzie has created a goals sheet focusing on health and behavioral outcomes for the fostering period. Each new foster volunteer gets as much support as they need, she says.
During kitten season (running from late spring through the summer), the Mackenzies and volunteers like them help the shelter by taking the tiny kittens into their homes until they are old enough to get adopted out. The Mackenzie’s Finishing School, which she and husband Dana created, operates just as a boarding or finishing school for humans operates: It prepares them for their next stage in life. “It helps socialize the kittens by getting them familiar with living in a house—the sound of a dishwasher, touch of a hand, movement of a broom,” she explains. Their goal, Mackenzie says, is to “get them relaxed, feeling comfortable, social and purring.”
Mackenzie, who has earned the nickname “the Kitten Flipper,” says one benefit to fostering is that volunteers get the cats when they are the cutest. Some people ask her how she doesn’t hold on to all of the kittens forever and ever. She does have one male cat, a graduate of the finishing school, that she has adopted. For her, letting them go is easy, she says. “It’s so they can make room for the next batch that is in need,” she says. “It’s my favorite thing to do. I enjoy the kittens so much, and it makes me feel like I’m really making a difference in the lives of animals.”
The shelter also has adult pets who, for varying reasons, need foster care. For example, some animals have special needs, and a home is usually much less stressful than a noisy shelter, where their recovery would be slower, Walker says. The shelter provides all needed medicine. “A home environment allows their immune system to kick in. All support is provided by the shelter,” Walker says.
Santa Cruz Animal Shelter is an open-admission shelter, so no creature—whether domestic, exotic or farm animal—ever gets turned away. The shelter is even a temporary home to two friendly pot-belly pigs named Suzie Q and Shirley, as well as a flock of chickens in the property’s barn.
Walker credits the close to 400 volunteers with keeping the shelter thriving. The outreach and education is funded by grants and donations, and local tax dollars take care of the basic operating costs.
Volunteers photograph pets, help care for them, and manage the property’s landscaping—in addition to fostering. One volunteer put herself through a paid apprenticeship to learn how to groom the pets that come into the shelter. “Without our community support we wouldn’t be able to offer the astounding level of care we do. We could cover the basics and make sure everyone is comfortable, but a lot of these animals are coming out of situations that are much worse than the shelter environment, and we see them blossom,” Walker says.
“Everybody here is crazy about animals,” Mackenzie says.
Eight years ago, Pearl Grey, who has a grey and white coat, was one of the kittens the Mackenzies fostered during their first year. She has recently returned to the shelter as an adult after her adoptive parent passed away. Kay Mackenzie says she remembers her as a kitten for her spunk and feistiness. Pearl Grey is up for adoption. Her adoption fees, like many of the older cats, are sponsored by Shelly’s Angels, an organization that covers the cost of adoption for older cats.
“I’ve really always been fond of senior cats,” Walker says. “People often overlook them because their eyes are glazed over by the kittens. We’ve had adult cats stay here four, five, six months.”
Ounce of Prevention
About 75 percent of the approximately 5,000 animals that come to the shelter annually are strays. “We are finally seeing the numbers come down in a consistent manner due to a very aggressive spay-and-neuter program,” Walker says. Santa Cruz County was the first county in California to pass a mandatory spay-and-neuter ordinance for all pets. But Walker says that many middle- and low-income pet owners couldn’t afford to do the right thing, which is why the shelter started a new program to help out.
Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter’s Planned Pethood Program makes it affordable for people of all income levels to get their pets spayed or neutered, vaccinated and even outfitted with microchips. “Planned Pethood is good for the animal. It keeps them healthier so they can live longer lives and gets them vaccinated,” Walker says. “It’s good for the household because you don’t have cats spraying and dogs wandering, and it’s good for the community because we are bringing down the overpopulation problem.”
It is especially hard to get older cats adopted during kitten season, from May to September, Walker says. Sometimes they see up to a dozen per day come through the doors, often brought in as strays.
Appropriately named, queen cats can produce two to three litters per year, with between two and eight kittens per litter. By the time she’s having her third litter, the babies from her first litter are often producing. One unfixed queen and her babies can produce around 40 kittens in a year. Walker says that’s why it’s so important to get queens spayed before they become four to six months old and they start going into heat.
“Getting pets adopted is fabulous,” Walker says. “It’s the joy of our work, but it’s reactive. It’s not proactive. So, we know what the problem is. We also know what the solution is and that’s educating the public about spay/neuter and getting them involved in making sure their pets are fixed.”
For information about how to adopt, volunteer or get involved with fostering, visit scanimalshelter.org/foster.