Two summers ago, Rabbi Keren Gorban moved into a brick home on a quiet street in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood. During the closing, the seller had placed keys in Gorban’s palms and commented on a matter unlisted in any prior disclosure statement.
“She said, ‘And, there’s some really cute kittens in the backyard,’” recalled Gorban.
Gorban, an ailurophile with two cats of her own, was surprised by the admission and began investigating. There were indeed kittens in the backyard, so Gorban sought advice from friends and prepared to address her newly acquired neighbors.
Given the number of felines, Gorban thought, “they’re clearly coming from somewhere, which means that there are unaltered cats in the neighborhood, and if you leave them there will be more cats,” she said. “I was like, ‘My neighborhood, my backyard, is not going to turn into a cat colony.’”
Gorban acquired humane traps, similar to those used by animal control, set the cages and waited. Apart from several racoons and a robin, Gorban caught 12 kittens and three adult cats.She freed the racoons and robin, then took the 15 moggies to two local nonprofits: Humane Animal Rescue and Animal Friends. Gorban worked with the latter fostering three kittens for about a month.
Fostering is different for each person, with much of it determined by the pet itself, explained Emily Zadjura, executive director of the Foster Farm, a Pittsburgh-based organization.
The process can last anywhere from two weeks to a year, depending on the pet’s age, health and behavior, she said. “I think a lot of it is how willing are you to commit yourself to this.”
When someone agrees to foster underage kittens that can’t eat on their own, the foster will need to bottle-feed them every two hours. Other cats require socialization while some simply need to be removed from a shelter due to illness, like an upper respiratory infection, said Melissa Smith of Humane Animal Rescue. When it comes to dogs under the age of 8 weeks, they’re placed in a foster home if they have kennel cough or require a less stressful environment.
Humane Animal Rescue works with 360 foster homes, all within an hour of the Steel City, to place between 1,500 and 2,000 animals a year, said Alexis Simonow, the organization’s foster program manager.
Amy Schulman, of Mt. Lebanon, gets a daily email from Humane Animal Rescue. Schulman was introduced to the world of animal fostering after experiencing the wonder of Hollywood, her cat.
“He was fostered prior to our adoption, and we just thought that getting involved in the foster program would be a really great way for us to give back,” she said.
Schulman fosters between one and three kittens at a time, provides them with food, litter, a clean space to play and ample socialization, all in the hopes of preparing the cats for adoption.
Apart from the “joyful” experience of having “little kittens around,” fostering is a boon to shelters because it frees up space and resources, she explained.
“It helps us out greatly,” agreed Dan Rossi, Humane Animal Rescue’s CEO. “During the months of June, July and August, we will typically get between 800 and 1,000 cats in each month.” Those numbers are “overwhelming,” he said. “There’s no way that we can internally house that many cats or animals at that period of time.”
Cheryl Johnson understands the predicament. After finishing work at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, she often visits the shelter’s adoption floor. Johnson began fostering five years ago, and since then has cared for approximately 30 cats and dogs. The regular feedings, cleanings and checkups are second nature now, but Johnson started slow.
“I was actually a volunteer first. I was a cat cuddler and then I became a dog walker,” she said.
Fostering felt “intimidating,” but Johnson underwent training, mentoring and orientation. Ultimately, she fostered two kittens and quickly learned the routine for keeping kittens on track.
“Feed them, weigh them, make sure that they get up to weight in order to be spayed and neutered,” she said.
Providing care for a newborn kitten or puppy, or even an older animal, is “a commitment,” said Zadjura. “It is work, but I do think that it is always worth it in the end.”
Johnson agreed: “It’s really rewarding whenever you go from the beginning to the end to see the full life that maybe didn’t even have a chance but will now because of the love and care that you’ve put into it.”
Given those benefits, Johnson plans on fostering indefinitely. She even admitted that although she’s never fostered reptiles or bunnies, she is open to the prospect: “I’m happy to take whoever.”
Such willingness to lend a hand once resulted in more than the Penn Hills resident could literally carry. After an email sought takers for a litter of 10 kittens, Johnson decided to foster them all.
The rationale was “even though they’re all going to get adopted to 10 different homes, I wanted to keep them together as long as I can,” she said. “They all have such different personalities, and they all play off of each other. It’s like having a big family, I guess. I just love seeing how they grow up together and who teamed up with who.”
During the litter’s earliest stages, Johnson woke up every two hours for feedings. Losing sleep was an afterthought. If newborn kittens are brought in without a parent, that’s “what has to be done,” she said.
Rossi has had the same experience. About 10 years ago, he fostered a small group of kittens. The bottle babies required feeding every few hours, which presented a challenge to Rossi’s early morning routine, so he began taking the three kittens with him — including to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
“I couldn’t leave them in the car while I was working out. I couldn’t leave them at home, certainly, and I didn’t want to miss my workout. So I actually started sort of sneaking them in and hiding them downstairs,” he said.
Rossi’s plan of stashing kittens in a cubicle reserved for trainers, or somewhere designated for staff, worked until one morning when an employee at the front desk asked Rossi what he was carrying.
When she saw the kittens, “she was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, they gotta stay up here with me. I’ll take care of them,’” he recalled.
Since then, JCC staffers have helped Rossi by holding his foster kittens and keeping them warm whenever needed. The partnership has also yielded long-term gains, as more than a dozen of Rossi’s fosters have been adopted by JCC members during the past 10 years.
Often an attachment develops when people come into the building and see the kittens “advance from when their eyes aren’t open to them actually opening their eyes and starting to interact,” said Rossi.
Growth during those early days occurs so rapidly; there’s something healing about engaging in the process, explained Johnson.
It’s part of the reason she began bringing her kittens to the Federation after Oct. 27, 2018.
Those weeks after the shooting at the Tree of Life building were extremely challenging, and sitting there with “this little purring kitten on your chest and just taking a break was really nice and helpful for me personally and for my colleagues who were under a lot of stress,” she said. “People would come over and just pick up a kitten and pet the kitten. We wouldn’t even have to talk.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.