Kitten Caboodle


Springtime is baby time for 40-times-a-season foster mom Meg Hassett.

“Babies, babies, babies,” she sings every April. “Where are they?”

Every spring, Hassett, 42, and other volunteers prepare to pull all-nighters and disrupt their households for the boxes of abandoned kittens that are guaranteed to turn up at animal shelters throughout Orange County.

During the breeding season, which lasts through August, foster pet volunteers get up every two hours to bottle feed the newborns, burp them and make sure they don’t roll off sheepskin-covered heating pads.

“They’re like guardian angels,” said Cindi Kane, assistant manager at the San Clemente Animal Shelter, of the volunteers. “It’s the most satisfying thing anyone could want to do--just the feeling that the [kittens] wouldn’t be alive if you hadn’t helped.”


Animal shelter officials do not keep statistics on the number of baby animals that are abandoned during the breeding season but say this is their busiest time of year.

At San Clemente’s shelter, workers recently found a 5-month-old calico cat left on their doorstep in a zipped-up beach bag. In Laguna Beach, animal control workers routinely find crates of flea-ravaged kittens next to dumpsters, with signs attached: “Please take care of them.” (Abandonment of an animal is subject to a maximum fine of $1,000 and six-month jail sentence.)

“This time of year, spring and summer, is absolutely devastating to shelter workers,” said Eileen Pinder, kennel manager at the Orange County Humane Society in Huntington Beach. “If the [foster volunteers] weren’t doing it, and weren’t so generous, these animals would be put to sleep.”

Foster programs exist only at smaller shelters, which are able to marshal volunteers to care for dozens of strays, including bunnies and puppies. But the Orange County Animal Shelter, which handles about 30,000 animals a year, does not have a foster volunteer program. The county shelter, which covers 21 cities and unincorporated areas, has too big of a load to coordinate such matches, said spokeswoman Lt. Marie Hulett.

At small shelters, volunteers take baby animals home until they are old enough or healthy enough to be adopted. They also keep watch over pregnant cats, and snip off the umbilical cords of newborns when the mother is too weak to do it.

They feed sick kittens through stomach tubes and rub their paws to stimulate their senses. They learn the tricks of foster pet parenting such as a simple diarrhea remedy--a dollop of fiber-rich canned pumpkin mixed with kitty formula.



The job is sort of like raising a child, but “it’s worse,” joked Linda Rohloff, 46, a foster pet volunteer and mother of two sons in San Juan Capistrano.

In the off season, foster volunteers in San Clemente also take “special needs” animals and nurse them to health--a crippled 90-pound Newfoundland dog who has to be carried outside to go to the bathroom, for instance, or a black poodle named Pirate who has a broken jaw and must be hand fed baby food.

Sometimes, the sick kittens or puppies die.

“It just tears your heart out,” Hassett said. “It makes you so angry. Someone dumps these babies that should have been with their mother. Now I’m dealing with what they consider their ‘trash.’ ”

Once a year, San Clemente’s shelter organizes a support group meeting for foster pet parents so they can commiserate and swap tips.

Volunteers such as Hassett schedule their lives around kitten season.

For the last 11 years, Hassett has taken care of about 40 kittens a season, sometimes three or four litters at a time. Occasionally, she sets aside a room for a pregnant cat--one of them ignored the bathtub “bed” prepared for her and gave birth in Hassett’s clean linen closet.

Three years ago, the shelter gave her a brain-damaged kitten named Gray Baby who shook with seizures. She held the kitten close all day because she thought he might die and wanted him to feel her warmth, her heartbeat.


Gray Baby still lives with her, along with three other cats and three dogs.

Hassett, a mother of two girls, keeps in touch with many of the families who adopt the kittens that she weaned; one woman sends her pictures several times a year and at holidays.

Hassett carts around the newborns that need regular feedings to the store or Sunday brunch in baskets or big bags. At night, she never falls into a deep sleep. She listens for their breathing, their cries.

“It’s the same instinct that kicks in as when you have a baby,” she said.

She sets the alarm for every couple of hours. Her husband doesn’t notice when she gets up anymore.

She is careful not to wake the kittens with too much light and heads to the kitchen to warm the formula in the microwave. And then for the next 45 minutes, she will hold, feed and burp a litter of six or so kittens, making sure that she rubs their bladder area so they eliminate waste.

She can’t wait for the breeding season to kick into high gear. So far this season, the shelter has sent only two kittens her way.

“It’s like springtime!” she said impatiently. “Where are the kittens?”