For many, spring means warmer weather, blooming flowers and, for the unlucky, allergies. For cat rescuers, it means kitten season, which isn't as adorable as it sounds. It's the time of year when more kittens are born, overwhelming shelters that usually have to turn the babies away. Luckily for local kitties, a rescue group is up and running in its new facility and ready to tackle its first kitten season.
SOXrescue is a nonprofit cat rescue that provides care for motherless neonatal kittens and other special-needs cats before adopting them out to the community and transporting some out of town. Though the team of nearly 100 volunteers, led by executive director Melanie Juarez and operations director Daniel Mariano, are armed with the knowledge, space and heart to save the kittens coming their way, they could use a little help in the way of supplies and donations.
And what do you do when babies are coming and need a whole lot of stuff? Throw a baby shower, or, in this case, a kitten shower. SOXrescue will hold one Sunday.
"The main purpose is to bring awareness to how stretched thin we are in kitten season," said Kelly Haddad, volunteer communications coordinator, speaking in the nursery. "This room isn't open to the public, so they don't know how (we work). We want the community to know this is what we're doing."
The felines and their devoted caretakers are asking for pet training pads, gloves, paper towels, kitten milk replacer formula, blue Dawn dish soap and more. Even tiny kittens need some toys, so they are also asking for a variety of mouse toys and plastic lattice balls. A detailed wish-list can be found on Amazon (just find the Accounts & Lists tag, then click Find a List or Registry, and search SOXrescue).
Everyone who brings a pack of training pads will be entered into a drawing for prizes. There will also be crafts, games, snacks and some adoptable kittens and cats looking for a home.
Though this is the first kitten season Juarez and Mariano will experience in the new facility on Stockdale Highway that opened in September, it won't be their first ever.
SOXrescue started five years ago, when the couple, now engaged, took in an abandoned kitten named Sox. He later became ill, and the veterinarian told Juarez and Mariano he would need lung surgery or to be euthanized. After raising money for the surgery online and getting donations from California to Australia and Sweden, Sox died before the surgery. The couple decided to use the money raised on other cats in need.
What started with helping a few cats here and there recently became a full-fledged rescue, with the only neonatal nursery and shelter within 100 miles, Juarez said. Since September, the rescue has saved 300 lives. Because they've been successful finding homes for the cats, the couple decided not to follow through on the early idea of making the shelter a cat cafe.
"What's more important, serving coffee or finding cats a home?" said Mariano, 30, adding that their adoption rates are especially impressive since these are not your model cats. "The cats we get here are messed up. They have gone through hell, been put on to-sleep lists. Most agencies that have high adoption, those are perfect cats. We've been able to do 300 adoptions with broken kitties."
Of course, once those injured or abused cats are given the chance to heal and know human kindness, and once those kittens get strong enough to adopt out, they leave SOXrescue as perfect pets, socialized with adults, kids and dogs to know what home would best suit them. They're adopted out through the facility and through satellite centers at local PetSmarts, at a rate of about five cats every four days.
The cats currently inside the facility are not yet ready to be adopted. In the front office area are cats who have already been deemed healthy, though they might still require some additional fostering or care before adoption. In another room is the medical area, where cats are quarantined until they are "cleared." One is Cheddar, a light orange girl who was likely abused and has a fractured tail and knee; she is awaiting a foster home.
Further in the room is the nursery area, where kittens as young as five days old are fed every two hours and kept warm in heated plexiglass enclosures. Their every meal, weight gain and vital is recorded so volunteers can track their health. Because their health is so delicate, Juarez, Mariano and the few volunteers trained to care for the newborn kittens wear and change gloves every time they touch a kitten, going through at least 200 pairs a day.
Though the rescue doesn't have a veterinarian onsite, Juarez, Mariano and volunteers are learning vet tech skills through classes and special instruction from doctors Thomas and Brian Edick at Wasco Veterinary Clinic. When necessary, cats will be taken to see the vet, but much can be done by trained volunteers, like CPR and first aid.
"You teach yourself, because if you don't, they'll die," Juarez, 25, said. "That's something we don't want to see. We push ourselves to work with vets, to take vet tech courses. We want to know how much more we can help."
The cost of saving one kitten is about $400, Mariano said. The couple started the facility with about $10,000 (from donors as well as savings Mariano had earned working in marketing in Calabasas), and they admit it's been tight every month. Waiting for more funds before opening, though, would have come at the cost of kittens' lives, so they jumped in. The organization relies on community donations and fundraisers. It also recently started offering vet transport to help earn some money.
"As an organization, we're not quitters," Mariano said. "We want to find a solution. That's how everything has grown here, out of problems and needs."
One solution to the problem of overpopulation is the McKeel Campground and Cat Refuge, which SOXrescue is currently developing. With plans to open this summer in Springville, the campground is designed to house local Trap-Neuter-Release, unadoptable cats that aren't welcome to be "released" where they were originally trapped. Up to 200 felines will roam in outdoor enclosures and share the grounds with visiting human campers who like their wildlife on the cute and fluffy side.
The kitten crew has big dreams, including a larger facility like the one they have now and the campground. It will mean even more hard work, more sleepless nights feeding kittens and more litter to scoop, but the passion to "Save the kitties," as their motto says, is enough to drive them.
"When we reached out to other agencies ... everyone said, 'Good luck,'" Mariano said. "Some meant, 'You're not going to make a dent.' Even if we save one cat, that makes a dent. (We're also) connecting families. It's a lot more than we thought it was. We're still in contact with a lot of (the adopted cats)."
One adopted cat Juarez and Mariano likely hear about often is Moo, the cat Haddad adopted for her toddler son. Soon after adopting the cat, Haddad decided to volunteer and is now also fostering a litter at home.
Moo "is the perfect companion," Haddad, 32, said. The team at SOXrescue "really will take time to talk to you about what you need. They really want to pair you and make a match. (Moo) is the best cat I can imagine."