Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Sitting in a massage chair on a recent weekday morning, Sheri Wolcott carefully combed a kitten with a toothbrush. She gently rubbed a puppy’s bottom with a wet cloth.
In essence, Wolcott spent a few hours playing mother to the most helpless four-legged creatures in the city of Albuquerque’s care.
“It’s needed,” she said while an apricot-colored kitten about a month old clambered around her lap. “It’s very needed.”
Cats are not considered adoptable until they are about 8 weeks old, or weigh 2 pounds, said Dr. Nicole Vigil, head veterinarian for Albuquerque’s Animal Welfare Department.
But, every year, the city shelters take in about 1,200-1,500 animals – mostly felines – well short of those benchmarks. They are too young and fragile to fend for themselves, and, for whatever reason, have been separated from their mothers.
They require constant care. They eat via bottle or syringe until they graduate to plates of half-formula/half-wet-food mush. They are just as likely to get the mush on their legs and back as in their mouths, but they do not know how to groom themselves. They also need external stimulation to go to the bathroom and cannot fully regulate their own body temperature.
Last year, about 250 of them died in the city’s care, according to Vigil, who said the shelter’s “already exhausted” technicians were trying to balance the babies’ feedings every two hours with surgeries, emergencies and other duties.
“We knew we needed to step it up and save the little vulnerable babies,” Vigil said.
Enter volunteers like Wolcott who are now helping in the department’s newly launched on-site nursery. While Vigil said humans are never a perfect replacement for mama cats and dogs, she said she’s hoping the new facility – which cost the department about $14,000 to launch – can make a difference.
In what used to be storage space, there are now four incubators where puppies and kittens can rest in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment, all the tools needed to tend to the babies, a box full of stuffed animals and even some dollar-store banners proclaiming “It’s a boy” and “It’s a girl.”
There are also two massage chairs where the volunteers – who keep the place running one 3½-hour shift at a time – can settle in with their tiny charges. They feed them, clean them, help them relieve themselves, and “help them feel cuddled and comforted,” Vigil said.
The veterinarian said the nursery’s aim is two-fold: providing an on-site venue for volunteers to give kitties and pups the requisite, life-saving attention, but also creating a training ground for future foster families. Once volunteers learn the ins and outs of neonatal care in a controlled setting, Vigil hopes more will be comfortable taking the babies home until they reach adoption age.
“Not only are we saving the lives of these little ones, but also we’re actually bringing fosters into this type of training as a hands-on way to get them to hopefully foster longer term,” she said. “We found that most people were intimidated by this kind of level of care.”
Jim Matthews is among the shelter’s most prolific volunteers. Retired from custom furniture and antique restoration, Matthews is known for accepting the young litters that require overnight bottle-feeding. At last count, about 280 shelter kittens had been through his home as fosters, he said.
The city is in the process of hiring him to mentor newer volunteers in the nursery.
Matthews said some volunteers are initially overwhelmed by the responsibility of tending to such helpless creatures, but it can become second nature after some practice.
And the payoff is significant.
“It’s just rewarding when you can pull (the kittens) through,” Matthews said last week as he wiped mush off a tortoiseshell kitty in the nursery.
Vigil said the shelter’s annual kitten onslaught is still in its early stages – it kicked off a little earlier this year, in February, but will likely continue through October or even November. Since the kitties sometimes arrive as young as a day old, she said she’s hoping the city finds more volunteers as only about half the nursery’s 42 shifts are filled.
Wolcott – who has a Wednesday morning nursery shift and is also fostering a trio of 3-week-old pups at home – said she can vouch for the experience.
“You feel good … you get the baby kitten hugs and kisses,” she said. “You’ll get your kitten fix.”