Jill Fishburn met Anais at a difficult time.
Anais was a stray cat, recently taken off the streets and living in a foster home with five other animals. She didn’t get along with other cats and would cope by breaking and peeing on things. It was not a good living arrangement for Anais, or her caretakers, and she needed help.
Originally, Fishburn’s partner was skeptical. The pair was still grieving from the loss of their pet and Anais’ kitten, Alphonse, who recently passed away from feline infectious peritoma. Fishburn’s partner worried about fostering a difficult cat, but Fishburn wanted to “do it for Alphonse.”
Eventually her partner agreed, and when Anais came to stay with them, she never left.
“[Fostering Anais] ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of our lives, to the point where we did actually foster-fail her,” Fishburn said. Foster-failing is a term for cat fosters who end up adopting the cats they foster.
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Since then, Fishburn, now a coordinator at Circle of Friends Animals Society, has fostered more than 150 kittens over the course of almost seven years.
The Kitten Season Conundrum
June is National Cat Adoption month. Up north, it is also part of kitten season — a period between March and October where shelters experience an increase in kitten intake.
However, according to Crystal Evans, a veterinary technician and clinic coordinator at the Athens Area Humane Society, there is no kitten season in the South, but disease transmission still goes up during the warmer months.
As a result, kittens are born year-round in the South and animal shelters struggle to keep up with demand for housing and medical care. Securing adequate space, staff and funding are consistent challenges and fosters play a vital role in making sure animals can find homes.
According to Fishburn, “kill” and “no-kill” shelters are different in that “kill” shelters must accept all animals that are brought to them and have to use euthanasia for population control if they run out of space. Most publicly funded shelters are “kill shelters” and most shelters are publicly funded.
“It’s not their fault,” Fishburn said. “They love animals and they’re doing everything they can. That’s why they work in that environment.”
When animal fosters temporarily house animals in their home, they create a safe space for that animal to live while freeing up a spot in a shelter for another one in need.
Shelters typically provide resources to facilitate fostering like food, supplies and veterinary care. Some, like the Athens Area Humane Society, also offer other services for the community, like low-cost basic veterinary care to those who can’t afford it and a Trap, Neuter, Return, or TNR program.
Trap, Neuter, Return
According to Evans, not all cats taken off the street are good candidates for adoption.
Those cats used to be referred to as “feral cats” because they weren’t socialized around humans when they were younger. In recent years there’s been a push to fight the stigma around the word feral by referring to them as “community cats.”
Evans wrote that if socialized in time, kittens born to community cats can still make wonderful pets. However, if a cat was never socialized around humans, he will likely never want to become a housecat.
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At the Humane Society, cats that aren’t socially good candidates for adoption as indoor pets are humanely trapped, brought to the clinic, sterilized, vaccinated and then given any additional medical attention they need.
Then, they get an “ear tip” — the painless, surgical removal of the tip of the ear (most often the left) while they are still under anesthesia. This is a universal indicator that a cat has been sterilized and vaccinated against rabies and is required by most county ordinances if a cat doesn’t wear a collar with a rabies vaccination tag. The cat is then returned to the location or colony (group of cats) it came from.
According to Del Peterson, an Athens Area Humane Society employee and active TNR participant, “There’s just not enough homes to feasibly house every cat so [TNR] is a way to keep populations down and disease from spreading.”
Petersen said that the process takes a while and begins by regularly feeding the cat to gain its trust and get it comfortable with eating at the same location. If Petersen sees a cat at least three times, they know they can set a trap and most likely catch the cat. Afterwards, they bring the cat to the Humane Society to get medical treatment and if it isn’t a good candidate for adoption, it is released back into the wild.
“In my last neighborhood I ended up catching a girl that was really malnourished and scraggly and she did not look very good,” Petersen said. “And then within a couple months of me releasing her, she had gained weight and looked better. She was like a completely different cat.”
Volunteers like Petersen and Fishburn feel that there’s still work to be done, but their efforts still have their rewards.
“I took in a feral cat named Jackfruit and he was so feral I could not touch him,” Fishburn said. “He’s now at the point now where when guests come over to his adopter’s house, he’ll go out and greet them, rub up against their legs and be held. That’s my biggest, proudest moment of fostering and my biggest success. I took a cat that was anti-human and made him love humans.”