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A heartbreaking story with a vital lesson about neonatal kittens

Posted on Friday, June 14, 2019
Infographic: I found kittens. Now what?

There are times when, even after all the years I have worked for the Richmond SPCA, I am still awed by our people, both staff members and volunteers, And, to be brutally honest, there are still times when I am also saddened by the very tough things they are forced deal with due to the needlessly thoughtless or ill-informed behavior of others. An example happened very recently. It ended in awful grief despite the noble efforts of our staff and volunteers.

One morning last week, one of our staff members arrived to discover a gift bag containing four one-day-old kittens left outside our front door. A quick review of the footage on our outside cameras (yes, we have them and, yes, they actually operate) revealed that the bag had been placed there by an individual at about 11 p.m. the night before. Newborn kittens cannot survive for hours without the body warmth of a mother and without any feeding. They cannot maintain their body heat or consume any nourishment without a mother or human care. When our staff member found the bag in the morning, two of the four kittens inside were already dead. They had died cold, hungry and alone during the night. The other two were in very bad condition from being cold and unfed.

After he was warm and fed, we had hope for Admiral, the lone survivor from his litter of four.

Our wonderful coordinator of foster care Allana Maiden worked immediately to try to warm both of them since a neonatal kitten does not have the reflex to suckle when cold. She was not able to get one of the two warm enough to take in any nourishment, and that kitten died in Allana’s arms within a short time. The other kitten got warm enough and began to take in some formula. Allana cared for that one remaining kitten, who we named Admiral, throughout the day. One of our dedicated and experienced foster care volunteers took Admiral into her care. She stayed up with him all night, warmed and fed him and got him through the night.  But, little Admiral did not survive the next night despite her loving and constant care.

Knowing what to do for infant kittens

We have tried so hard to inform the people of our community that, if they find tiny kittens, they should keep a watch over the kittens for a few hours because usually the mother cat will return. She is usually just away getting food for herself, which she has to do in order to care for her litter. Tiny kittens have a much better chance of survival if they stay with their mother and so it is important to leave them where they are and see if the mother returns. If she does not return within a few hours, then you should take them in, keep them warm, bottle feed them and bring them to us when we are open and can provide care. Even being as charitable as is possible, it is hard to imagine that someone really thought they were doing the right thing by these tiny infants in leaving them in a paper bag at our door when they would be there alone and cold throughout the night, vulnerable in every imaginable way.

Our staff and volunteers deal with these tragic situations with compassion and a long-learned stoicism. There is a certain mental fortitude that we must acquire if we are going to focus on providing what these animals in great need must have in order to give them the best chance of survival. But, no matter how courageous, calm and tenacious our folks are about doing all that can be done to try to save the animals that we take into our care, every death of an animal to whom they have delivered compassionate and dedicated care is deeply upsetting and traumatic. How could it not be? Every time, you think that if you do things just right and concentrate on delivering crucial care maybe you will save this one. And, when despite all that focused care and heartfelt effort, you lose them, it takes a bit of your soul.

How can people do things like dropping a bag of four tiny neonatal kittens at our door many hours before someone will be there to find them? I have never been able to explain these things either to others or to myself. All I know is that the people of the Richmond SPCA are heroes every single day as they display, yet again, grace and devotion under pressure. What we all live for are the times, and there are many, when our efforts defy the odds and we save one more precious animal so he or she can go on to a long and happy life.  

Robin Starr and Dixie (dog)
Robin with her dog Dixie

Robin Robertson Starr is the chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA.

Robin left a successful career as an attorney to join the Richmond SPCA as its chief executive officer in 1997. During her tenure, Robin has transformed the organization into a national leader in animal welfare and has implemented a multitude of progressive and innovative programs and services, now replicated at agencies nationwide, dedicated to ending pet homelessness throughout the community. She is a visionary in the humane movement, and her work has led to Richmond being distinguished as one of the safest cities in the country for homeless animals.

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