In the latest litter we fostered there was a clear runt, tiny and watchful, all head and twitchy ears. We should have named her Yoda but the kids dug in on Peanut. She was all quiet confidence in a six-ounce package, walking unfazed between the legs of our Bernese Mountain Dog. She could run and jump and wrestle with the others, she just got tired more easily. After awhile she’d come back to sit on my lap while I typed, crouching on delicate paws and curling herself into a space the size of a child’s handprint.
Our job was to fatten her up like her three siblings. They were four weeks old and would be adoptable in a month as long as they reached two pounds. All four were eating canned food watered down to a gruel, and I’d been supplementing Peanut’s diet with syringes of feline milk.
I thought they were all on track, but it wasn’t enough for her. Early yesterday morning I found her laying still and barely breathing in the kitten bed after her siblings had scattered to play. I sped her to the animal clinic wrapped in a blanket, but brought her home an hour later in a small box. The vet seemed surprised I wanted to take her home to bury her, a foster that didn’t work out, not really mine, not anyone’s. It underscored the fact that she was on no one’s radar. Burying her felt important. She had existed, and she mattered.
When the kids came back from school I walked them to the tiny grave under a tree circled with stones. I explained “fading kitten syndrome,” the catch-all term used for the ones not robust enough to digest food, fight germs, beat whatever glitch Darwinism had thrown their way.
The folks at the shelter where I foster say there’s one in every group; for each litter of, say, five kittens, an average of 3.5 make it to eight weeks old. But the statistics were lost on my younger boys. They had helped raise more than 10 litters, and though I’d told them about the risks and the rescue losses I’d had when I was younger, we as a family had never lost one. Standing under the tree looking at the mound of dirt and stones, that achievement seemed to wilt. The kids were sad, and I’d let myself get too attached.
Why do it? I wondered, after we went back into the house. Really, why do it to ourselves? It’s nice to have a hand in turning strays born in the bushes or pulled from hoarder homes become healthy and well-socialized pets. It’s no boast, it’s just a fact: The kittens that do time at our busy house leave knowing how to roll with it. And it’s certainly no hardship playing with these adorables for a few weeks. Laying on the floor in the dark with two purring on your chest is the best therapy money can’t buy. I’ve often felt like we had a secret. Sshh, don’t tell anyone where they came from, or everyone will foster and there won’t be enough for us.
Then there are the times it isn’t going so well — when they aren’t eating enough or develop an infection. And the inevitable math, if you stop to think about it. For every one that’s rescued there are plenty that aren’t, which can make fostering feel like a zero-sum game. I usually don’t see it that way. But yesterday hit me hard and made me wonder whether I’d tried hard enough, watched closely enough. Whether it’s worth the ups and downs, and if I’m as resilient as I need to be. The Humane Society estimates that tens of thousands of families foster pets every year. If I decided it was too raw for us, for me, the shelter surely had plenty of other foster families who’d take them in.
That same morning, as Peanut took her last breaths in my lap, the news broke that a shooter in Las Vegas had killed 58 people overnight and wounded 500. Mourning a kitten felt a little obscene against that backdrop of loss. Not to mention the suffering in Puerto Rico, where 84 percent of the people still didn’t have power following Hurricane Maria, and 37 percent didn’t have clean water. Mexico was memorializing 370 just killed in an earthquake. It is easy to feel ineffectual when a wave of bad news pummels one day, and then again the next. It’s hard not to let the scope of need erode your faith that small things are worth doing. Even if small things are the only measure of difference in a zero-sum game.
In the afternoon, an email came from the new owner of Clyde and Flynn, two kittens from a litter born at our house in May. We love getting photos and updates on the kittens when we’re able to know where they’ve been placed. Crazy Clyde and his sidekick Flynn were six months old and behaved like drunken teens at a house party, and their new owner loved it.
“One day I heard a strange creaking sound coming from the hallway,” wrote the woman who’d adopted them. “There was a wooden clothes-drying rack and he’d climbed up and was and swinging from his front paws like a kid on a jungle gym. I’ve attached the video or you wouldn’t believe me. They are thriving, Nichole, and they just love people. I’m so fortunate that they had you and yours as their foster family.”