In these fraught days of political upheaval and polarization, it’s nice to know there’s something in this world that most people can agree on, and it is the following two statements: kittens are cute, and helping homeless animals is a good thing. Soprano Laura Fries of the Met Chorus has been fostering homeless cats and kittens at her home in upstate NY for 16 years, and there’s no stopping her! Lianne Coble-Dispensa recently spoke with Laura to get the skinny on all things cat-related (spoiler alert: fostering animals is not a walk in the park, but the rewards are multitudinous).
LCD: What inspired you to start fostering kittens?
LF: I have always loved animals. I would be late to kindergarten most days because I would have to make the rounds of all my neighborhood animal friends before getting there! When I moved into Manhattan (into a ‘no pets’ building, no less), I was watching a TV show that mentioned how much it meant that people would step up as foster homes for homeless pets. When I saw what some of the innocent animals endured, I had to act. The building found out after about 8 months of fostering and I decided to move to a house in order to give me more room for the babies and to take them in ‘legally’.
LCD: Do you work through a pet adoption organization or a shelter?
LF: I have been affiliated with multiple rescues and shelters, and have also taken in cats discovered by neighbors. Once people find out you do rescue, you are the go-to person for any animal in need!
LCD: Tell me about the work that goes into fostering cats and kittens.
LF: It depends on the situation. The best situation is a litter of kittens with their mother. The mother does all the work with the kittens and my job is mostly to take care of her and to socialize the babies. Socializing them is the fun part – basically playing with them, cuddling them, just getting them used to be handled. Once the kittens are old enough, I help the mother teach them how to eat solid food and drink out of the water dish. The mother teaches them how to use the litter box.
The worst case scenario is that I get very young kittens (still nursing and sometimes sick) without the mother. Then I have a lot of challenges to keep them going. I bottle feed them every 2 hours around the clock, have to monitor constantly to keep them warm and clean, stimulate them to urinate and defecate – basically do everything their mother should be doing.
One time, I had five litters (yes, mamas AND kittens) at once! It was both crazy AND crazy fun.
LCD: How long do the fosters stay with you?
LF: The kittens generally stay with me until 8–10 weeks of age or longer, depending on their adoption. I make sure they’re okay with eating solid food, drinking water from the dish, and using the litter box. The rescue/shelter is responsible for getting homes for them. Thankfully, the kittens are so darn cute that adopters are pretty easy to find!
LCD: What is a typical day like taking care of little kittens?
LF: A typical day starts with a major clean-up! I remove the bedding, food and water dishes, and completely sanitize their area. The dirty bedding, food and water dishes are replaced. The rest of the day I am constantly switching out toys and kitten trees to stimulate their activity, and cleaning up messes, etc. I play with them and watch how they’re developing. Sometimes I’ll have kittens who need to be bottle-fed, and this requires a lot of time and attention to detail (tracking their milk intake and weight, among other things). It helps that I took a small animal care course in high school. Beyond that, I basically learned everything else from other foster families, shelter workers, and my veterinarian.
LCD: This sounds like an enormous amount of work! Do you have pets of your own?
LF: I currently have five cats, mostly older. My oldest is 15. At my highest point, I had twelve.
LCD: Do they get along with their kitten visitors?
LF: I don’t integrate my guys with my fosters so they’re not exposed to diseases. However, I don’t bring any new cat into my house without a thorough vet visit, which includes testing for infectious diseases. But there’s no guarantee that the cat I’m fostering doesn’t have a problem, so I don’t chance it.
LCD: What are the things you love most about being a foster cat mom?
LF: Kittens are so darned adorable, and they’re pretty hilarious, too! They all have their own personalities and wonderful behaviors. I remember every one!
It’s so amazing to watch them develop. They start out not being able to track toys very fast with their eyes and in no time they’re chasing them at top speed! They barely climb at a few weeks old and by 7 weeks they’re at the top of a 6’ tall cat tree!
It’s also very gratifying to take in a very sick kitten and nurse it back to full health. And of course, watching the kittens go to wonderful homes is a big payoff.
LCD: What are the challenges of fostering kittens?
LF: The only real challenges are when they have special needs. I had a kitten that looked like a baby bird that fell out of a nest, she was so tiny and delicate. It was worrisome. She ended up fine, after a lot of attention and effort, and she’s a beautiful cat now.
But there is always the possibility that something will go wrong, so the level of watchfulness is intense for the first few weeks.
I had a pregnant feral mother that I brought home from a shelter so that she could have a peaceful, less stressful place to give birth. I was anxious about her, so I slept in the room with her in a crate and one night I was awakened to the sound of little kittens! The challenge after that was to socialize the babies without annoying the mother. I had put her whole carrier in the crate when I got her, so I would use a kitchen spatula to push her door shut when she went inside, hold it closed while I opened the crate and locked her in. Then I could let the babies roam for awhile without worrying about the mother charging at me! She turned out to be a great mother and the two of us worked together pretty well to get the babies ready for adoption.
LCD: What have I left out that you think the public should know?
LF: We have a pretty big problem with overcrowded shelters. There is a constant stream of homeless pets that need to be fostered. You can approach any rescue and offer to be a foster for them. It gives a rescue group a big boost to be able to take in higher numbers of deserving, wonderful animals that need help.
Also, consider volunteering at a shelter! They need dog walkers, kitten and puppy cuddlers, general workers, you name it.
Cats of all ages need fostering. When tiny kittens are in shelters, they don’t tend to survive because of the level of contamination and illness that their little bodies have to battle, so they are especially in need of fostering. And it is especially heart rending to see elderly cats in shelters. They make wonderful fosters and are incredibly grateful to be out of the shelter situation. When I retire, I intend to become a haven for senior cats, so that they can live out their days in a comfortable home situation.