Esther Neonatal Kitten Alliance

Esther: Photo provided by Neonatal Kitten Alliance
Esther: Photo provided by Neonatal Kitten Alliance

The kitten was two-weeks old and alone in a field. She struggled to eat or potty.

Thankfully, Esther was discovered by a woman named Andee who immediately took her home and called for the help of a more knowledgable friend. Alli became Esther’s new caretaker but kept Andee updated with photos and stories.

As Esther was growing, Alli noticed something was off. She was clumsier than the average kitten. Esther was diagnosed with Cerebellar Hypoplasia. Esther wasn’t about to deterred by CH and Alli made plans to adopt her.

Sadly only a few months later, illness took Esther from the two ladies. Through their nonprofit, the Esther Neonatal Kitten Alliance, the ladies have memorilizes Esther.

ENKA has rescued 153 orphaned newborns over the past year. It is not an adoption agency; instead, the nonprofit transfers kittens to partnered organizations once they are weaned. This keeps ENKA’s resources laser focused on the most fragile and vulnerable animals. 

ALLISON: What inspired you to start Esther Neonatal Kitten Alliance?

ANDEE: I have been working in animal welfare for about a decade. For the first half of my career, I was working in upstate New York where kitten season is relatively mild due to the long winters, less outdoor cats, and more positive community views on spay/neuter. When I moved to the south, it became very clear to me that kitten season was a huge problem and that orphaned neonates in particular were in danger due to a lack of training and resources. When I started the Kitten Alliance, I knew that it couldn’t be just a rescue. It had to also function as a support system and resource hub for other animal rescues and municipal shelters throughout our region.

ALLISON: Do you have your own pets? Tell me about them.

ANDEE: I have three cats of my own: Ida is a 9-year old grey floofy angel. She’s toothless, cuddly, and absolutely the most perfect creature to ever walk the earth. Nora is a 9-year old Maine Coon who is nicknamed “Naughty Nora” because she is always up to no good. Edith is about a bazillion years old and came to me after a friend trapped her while working a TNR project. Because she’s so old, toothless, and deaf, she couldn’t be released back to her colony. She hated my guts for the first two years she lived with me, but has recently let her guard down and is blending into the pack.

Photo provided by Neonatal Kitten Alliance
Photo provided by Neonatal Kitten Alliance

ALLISON: What responsibilities are involved with a kitten rescue?

ANDEE: Our primary responsibility is providing the best care possible for the kittens who need us. Since we deal exclusively with neonates, our animals are much more fragile than those found at a typical rescue, and that adds a significant amount of urgency to our work. If we get a call about newborn kittens at 10 p.m., for instance, we know that those kittens may not make it through the night if we don’t get them quickly to someone who has experience with bottle feeding. A typical week involves picking up kittens who are new to our program, delivering kittens to foster homes, transfering weaned kittens to partnered organizations for adoption, transporting kittens to veterinary appointments, teaching webinars, meeting with donors, engaging our supporters on social media, and fundraising.

ALLISON: What have you learned about kittens through running a rescue?

ANDEE: No matter how long I do this work, there will always, always, always be a kitten right around the corner with some new illness or injury I’ve never dealt with before. Earlier this year, for instance, we took in a newborn kitten named Owen whose umbilical cord had been wrapped tightly around his foot for hours for hours before he was found. Even though the cord had been removed by the person who found him, his foot was still black, swollen, and cold when he arrived. I had never dealt with that level of limb strangulation before, but got to work quickly to make a plan for him.

Two different vets told us that it wasn’t likely that we’d be able to save his foot, but that didn’t slow down our efforts. After more than a month of antibiotics, a topical ointment, water therapy, laser therapy, and massaging his foot every two hours, the color started to return, the swelling went down, and Owen began walking on his foot as if he was never injured!

So I suppose the biggest lesson I have learned is that while veterinarians and surgeons are certainly incredible at what they do, they aren’t fortune tellers. Their jobs are to solve the problem in the easiest way possible, which for Owen would have been removing his very injured foot. But if you’re willing to go outside your comfort zone and put in tons of time and other resources, you can make truly incredible things happen.

ALLISON: What are the unique challenges of caring for neonates?

ANDEE: In the world of rescue, neonates are some of the most challenging animals there are because they are very fragile, they have very weak immune systems, and they require around-the-clock care. We face two main big challenges:

  1. Since our kittens require so much more attention than older kittens, and since that care is often specialized, it takes a very special person to be able to foster for us. So it can be a challenge to recruit people who are logistically able to drop everything and bottle feed a kitten every one to four hours and physically able to wake up every few hours to bottle feed the kitten throughout the night. Our fosters also must be curious learners by nature because there is always some new problem to solve or skill to learn. Luckily, we have a fantastic group of fosters!   
  2. Kittens have often been alone for hours in awful situations before they are found. It’s common for us to get kittens who are in pretty bad shape (emaciated, dehydrated, battling some sort of infection or injury, covered in maggots or fly eggs, etc.) and it’s an uphill battle to save them as quickly as possible. Fortunately, we have a lot of knowledge and a lot of lifesaving tools at our disposal! 

ALLISON: Why and how did you develop rescue partners? Tell me about your Shelter Support Program.

ANDEE: My history or working with various rescues taught me that even the best and most well-funded organizations often struggle when it comes to neonatal kittens. With so many other animals in their care, it’s hard for them to give the high level of training and support neonate fosters need in order to be successful at saving lives. We started the Shelter Support Program as a way to take some of the pressure off of the shelters, make sure the kittens get the care they need, and work towards a goal of helping the shelters build their own effective neonate programs over time. 

We work with more than a dozen animal rescues and municipal shelters all throughout our region, and they all have unique challenges when it comes to neonates. We work with each shelter partner to assess their own challenges and assist them in the way that helps save the most lives. Here are two examples of shelter partners who we help in different ways: 

  • Asheville Humane is a well-funded organization here in Asheville. They’ve been around for a long time, have a great reputation, have a huge support base, and have a great neonate program of their own. They do face a few challenges though that we’re able to help them with. First, they simply don’t have the staff time to train their potential neonate fosters, so we do that for them. Next, they have a hard time placing newborns into foster homes when they show up within an hour or two of closing for the day, and so we’ll step in to provide overnight care until they can place them into their own foster homes the next day. And, finally, sometimes they have neonates who need some sort of specialized care (like tube feeding) which is making the kitten hard to safely place in a foster home, and so we’ll take that kitten for a few days until they’re back on track and easier for a less experienced foster parent to take. 
  • Day One Animal Rescue is located in a county about an hour outside of Asheville. They are only a few years old, have a small foster base, and are located in a county where funding and other resources are tight. We’re working with them to build a stronger neonate program of their own, but it may realistically be years before they have one. In the meantime we’re doing what we can to support them. That means training their fosters, taking their neonatal kittens into our foster homes until they’re weaned and ready to transfer back to them, and we’re on-call to answer questions about kittens when they need help.

Basically, every organization is different, so our Shelter Support Program isn’t one-size-fits-all. We base the support on what each individual organization needs most to save lives.

We also offer free webinars to shelters all around the country and world. This year we have trained representatives from 137 organizations in 32 states and five countries.

Sugarcane, four days; Photo provided by Neonatal Kitten Alliance
Sugarcane, four days; Photo provided by Neonatal Kitten Alliance

ALLISON: Tell me about your Community Education.

ANDEE: It’s important to support organizations, but it’s equally important to teach the community about how to care for orphaned neonates since it’s often people in the general public who find the kittens outdoors and will be responsible for caring for the kittens until they can get them to a rescue organization. The more we can do to help people understand how to care for them correctly, the better shape they will be in when they eventually arrive. We do this by offering free webinars and in-person classes (when safe) to anyone who wishes to know more about caring for orphaned newborns. This year alone we’ve trained 347 people.

ALLISON: What keeps you going in the tough times?

ANDEE: This work can be incredibly stressful and exhausting. But all of that goes away for a bit when a kitten nuzzles into me, purrs for the first time, or meets some big growth/health milestone. When things get hard, I’m able to keep going because I know the kittens are depending on us.

ALLISON: How do you get the word out about Esther Neonatal Kitten Alliance?

ANDEE: We’re very active on social media and we’re always posting very cute shareable posts, so that has helped us grow more than anything. We also send out several press releases each year, write up a few stories about our kittens a couple times a year for local pet magazines, and depend on our supporters telling their friends and family about our work.

ALLISON: Anything else?

ANDEE: Not to be too much of a tease, but we have a very exciting project we’ll be announcing within the next month or so that will dramatically increase the amount of little lives we’re able to save! Readers can follow us on Facebook (@kittenalliance) to learn more!

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