SEPTEMBER 25 IS the anniversary of the arrival of Fromage, the neonatal kitten I fostered in 2009, a tiny kitten screeching for food and comfort with a volume hard to believe in something that weighed just a few ounces. Her little life depended on that volume, though, and her persistence and vocal skill paid off in her rescue and is typically indicative of a cat with a strong will to live, able to face down most ills that may befall her through the rest of her life. And especially in this circumstance—she was found by a friend’s daughter in an abandoned lot during the struggles of the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh in 2009. I took the photo above about a week after she arrived, but I started photographing her the day she arrived. So much happened in a short time: she arrived three months after I lost Namir, Dickie came to live with us for a year a few weeks after she arrived, and the Fantastic Four had their first taste of fostering a kitten—and taught me a lesson in nurturing, that it’s best done by one, or four, of your own kind! She’s all grown up now and I still get to visit her, and she’s been the subject of a book I illustrated as well as a piece of artwork. Here’s her rescue story.
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“What do I do with this tiny kitten?” asked my friend Maggie, loud kitten screeches in the background of her call. She told me her daughter had been delivering food to the protesters at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh in 2009, and heard a kitten screeching somewhere in the darkness. She found the kitten tangled in some brambles in an overgrown lot only by the strength of the kitten’s voice, because the kitten was, for the most part, solid smoky gray-black. “My daughter had to go back to school and left the kitten with her friends and called me. I thought I’d be getting an older kitten, but this one isn’t interested in any food, except a little bit of brie I have on hand,” she finished, hence the kitten’s eventual name.
“Are the kitten’s eyes open?”
“Yes, but they look kind of cloudy, and she’s very tiny, but she’s very loud! I’ll be glad to do whatever I can for her, but she doesn’t seem to want anything I can do!”
“I don’t think she’s weaned yet, especially if she doesn’t recognize the canned food as ‘food’. She needs to be fed baby kitten formula.”
“How do I do that? Do they sell it?”
“Yes, you buy it and mix it and get a little kitten baby bottle and feed her.”
“I can do that.”
“Every two hours.”
“What?! I can’t do that unless I take her to work! Can you help me with that?”
“Bring her here.”
Little, little kittens fascinate me. A miniature that can easily fit in my outstretched hand with a Hello Kitty head and stubby legs sits and licks the side of her paw then swipes it across her face, though she sways perilously from side to side with the effort.
As soon as their eyes have barely opened at ten days to two weeks of age every moment is spent building skills and coordination, gathering knowledge out of the air and fearlessly exploring their surroundings and conquering the errant toy or human foot that gets in their way. They never worry about falling down or making mistakes or looking stupid.
By six weeks they can climb a scratching post, run faster than you, chase and kill a small insect or even a tiny animal if necessary, give themselves a complete bath and get into more trouble than you can imagine because they have yet to develop any common sense.
My mission, should I choose to accept it
Fromage arrived early the following morning after keeping Maggie awake with constant calls for food. I had some powdered formula and a set of feeding stuff and we got to it right away, and I was fostering a very young kitten for the first time in many, many years. She came in at about two weeks of age, fitting herself from nose to rump easily on the length of my hand, her eyes open but that cloudy blue gray that still doesn’t focus. I called my vet to let her know of the new arrival.
Her early audaciousness translated into an easy adaptability and an outgoing, affectionate personality, even in less than a week. At about three weeks old she had doubled her entry weight, at least by my little postal scale, was a little longer than my outstretched hand, her legs had grown so she was at least off the floor, her eyes were clear and her pupils reacted to light, and she was ready for action.
At this age she is considered “neo-natal”, not newborn but still recently-born and needing some critical nurturing. Her body was really too young to digest solid food at first, so I used kitten formula and a tiny bottle with miniature nipples to fit on the top. She was confused by the bottle, which did not feel like Mom, and a few drops of formula dripped on the inside of my arm and she got her little face in it. It had warmed to my skin temperature and she began lapping immediately and kneading my arm. I slipped the nipple of the bottle toward her tongue and squeezed to teach her that was where it came from, but only got a little more formula onto my arm. Eventually she got the connection and finally nursed from the bottle for a little but mostly from the crook of my arm and then from a shallow dish. It only took one session to recognize the cloth I put on my lap when I fed her. She danced and squeaked and climbed all over me as I sat down on the floor with her formula.
Her little digestive system also needed “stimulation” in order to be able to eliminate, as her mom would lick her in strategic areas to make sure what goes in comes out; this was accomplished by me with a warm, damp rag. Because I was already handling her already I simply put her in the litterbox when she was ready to go. On her second day here she got in the box herself, the little one I set up for her like a potty chair next to the big adult litterbox. This puzzled me because she had seemed so young, but perhaps it’s just a mystery.
In just a few days both the warm damp rag and the little girl litterbox were history because she decided she was a big girl and would use the big girl litterbox, and she didn’t need any help. The third time she got in the box she began scratching around in the litter first. How the heck did she learn that?! Scratching in the litter before elimination and burying afterward are instinctive, plus most kittens imitate their mother if she’s around, but the last litter of kittens had their mom, Mimi, an excellent momcat, and still I don’t remember them using the box that successfully or that young.
At the beginning the formula seemed to satisfy her. By the end of the week she was squeaking that it just wasn’t enough so I got canned kitten food appropriate for her age and introduced her to it. She barely said hello to it before she was gobbling it down, then lapping formula out of a dish. In just a few days she had no interest in the formula at all but ate her canned food mixed with formula and then with plain water, purring and talking as she ate. I thought she was too young to wean at that rate, but she seemed fine.
She also knew the direction in which I disappeared and pressed her little nose in the crack between the bifold doors to the bathroom to call for me. After a few days I saw her little paw on the edge of the door giving it a shove. Oh, no, not already! I have a hook and eye to hold it closed, but if she learned that fast she was going to be a terror.
At about four weeks her little squeaks of “ee-ee-ee” matured into a more recognizable “mew-mew-mew”, her eyes shaded to grayish and she had begun to pin back her ears and flap her little tail and run around the bathroom with great speed and coordination, climb what she could and stalk and ambush me, crouching beside the mint green toilet on the white tile floor where I’d never notice a fuzzy black kitten.
This was all happening too fast. In her four weeks she went from zero to small cat with no signs of stopping. Just in the two weeks she’d been with me she transformed from helpless squeaking fuzzball to capable kitten, formula to real food, pee on the floor to proper litterbox use. She had a big personality and I could see the type of adult she would become, friendly and outgoing, audacious and playful, that same will that saved her life also making sure that she is the center of attention wherever she goes.
During any session with her, I sit on the floor and let her run all over me. She climbs my shirt and plays with my chin, then she runs onto my outstretched legs, flops herself down in some nook, rolls over on her back and waves her little paws in the air, waiting for me to rub her belly. She then gets up and walks the length of my legs to my feet and climbs up onto my toes where she precariously balances.
After this gymnastic effort she leaps off my legs and does a few laps around the bathroom, stops to pin back her ears and arch her back and tail and do the little sideways dance that always cracks me up when kittens do this, eventually coming back to my lap and starting over.
I worried that she didn’t have a buddy to wrestle with. They need to develop those muscles and coordination and social skills, but all she’s got is me. It’s not a good idea to use your hand to wrestle with a kitten because they usually grow to learn that human hands are toys and anyone can conclude that’s not a good idea when kitty gets bigger. I had plush toys that I held in my hand when she wanted to wrestle with me, and when she grew a little bigger and I don’t t worry so much about her falling I would add a slanted scratching pad to her toys so she could climb and a few little cardboard boxes she could jump into.
Fromage was healthy and progressed normally; I’ve fostered others orphaned young who had so many health issues it was hard to treat them all, upper respiratory infections, parasites, injuries, infections, all of them life-threatening, hard to believe something that little could fight off that much. But wherever Fromage emerged from she didn’t encounter any of the usual orphaned kitten illnesses or they would have evidenced by now. The bigger illnesses—I guessed we’d see later. Fromage certainly seemed to be in control of her destiny, and perhaps that would keep her protected through the rest of her life.
The family of fostering cats
This was the first time I didn’t have any of the nurturing kitties who took over fostering little ones as they got older and needed to learn big cat things. I relied on especially Moses and Stanley to teach the kitten important lessons, even if that meant Stanley playing soccer with the kitten, using the kitten as the soccer ball. Moses was a gentle pillow of purring comfort for any living creature, especially a motherless kitten. Kublai was universally worshipped. As kittens grew Cookie played the big sister role and taught important lessons on leadership and how to charm and manipulate humans, Namir was the big brother who regularly put kittens in their place, secretly pleased with his adoring follower. But I still had Cookie, and now I had a new foster team.
Fromage slept in the special “kitten bed”, the one I purchased for Moses long ago and all the kitties who have used it since then. Added in the bed are the small pillow with the gray kitty face that was Moses’ bed, and underneath that is Stanley’s infamous pink sweater; you can see this bed in the second photo in this article. Mimi’s Children slept in this bed, cuddled in the memories of all the other rescues who’ve lived with me, and Fromage returned to this bed frequently, so I guessed they were still doing their magic. But while she was friendly with me, she was often fussy or even frightened with friends who came to visit.
I noticed when I was in the room with her she would go to the door and touch it, and when I was outside the door I saw Jelly Bean sitting right up against it, and I heard his loud purr. One afternoon as she did this, I decided to slide the door open. There sat Bean, purring and squinting down at Fromage, who took one flying leap and tried to throw her little arms around him and take him down. She did this repeatedly. Bean sat and purred. Then he leaned down and gave her a bath. Lots of purring ensued.
I don’t normally mix cats this soon, especially since she was still too young to be tested for FIV/FeLV or even vaccinated. I decided that, if she had anything contagious, she would likely not have been so healthy, and her emotional health was just as important. With neonatal rescues like Fromage, the danger of delayed physical or social development is common, so I studied her coordination, voice, apparent vision and hearing, eating habits, everything that was a clue to her progress. She was an early star with litterbox use, played with toys and with me, and was very affectionate with me. However, she didn’t play for very long when I wasn’t in the room, and there was that shyness with other people.
Social interaction with people is important, and if I had had the time to spend more hours with her I may have sufficed—plenty of others have done that with foster kittens. But she really needed the company of other cats to develop both physical agility and social skills. Kittens, puppies, and young of all species when they are born in litters, play all day long at her age, wrestling, chasing, stealing toys from each other and sharing toys with each other, eating together, bathing each other and sleeping in a pile together. Aside from eating, it’s the most important thing they do at that age.
Call in the Fostering Four. One night not long after, I was sorting laundry on my bed and had the Four and several other of the adult cats in my bedroom. I put her on my bed among the piles of laundry and let her explore and, one by one, meet the other cats. There was a small amount of hissing, but no one left.
Jelly Bean had known what was expected of him right away, and was the only one never to utter a discouraging hiss, but purred at the shrieking kitten the first night, sniffing at the door and asking to go into the bathroom from then on. Giuseppe and Mr. Sunshine were a little doubtful at first, sitting and staring when possible, growling and swatting when necessary, for about a half day, then they began chasing her in play and swiping a little bath at her now and then. Mewsette was the only holdout, and as soon as she realized the irritating little thing could play was dancing on the top of the baby gate so the kitten could try to grab her toes. The favorite game of all was when Fromage would run the gauntlet of the Fantastic Four, weaving through all their legs while they took swats at her, from the bathroom, to the landing, to my bedroom, then circling around under my bed to do it all over again.
I blocked the top of the stairs with a baby gate, closed the door to the spare bedroom (now the studio) and let Fromage run around the upstairs for an hour or so once or twice a day. While she could still be kept corralled by the baby gate, the adults could visit when they wanted and escape whenever they got tired of her then go back for more.
She blossomed as she quickly developed greater coordination and learned to play with four adult cats in turn. And not only them, but in the meantime I took in another adult foster, Dickie, who was staying in the spare bedroom until I could introduce him to the household, and Fromage stopped to play paws under the door with him as well!
Mimi’s reaction to her was almost funny—a hostile look and a big, long hissssss. I guess she’d had enough of kittens for one lifetime. The tri-color trio, Cookie, Kelly and Peaches, came to the top of the stairs, but with the Four there already and the studio door closed it was a little crowded, and at ages 17, 16 and 19 respectively they were happy to watch from a distance, glad to see the lessons they’d taught the Four themselves acted out with Fromage.
Initially, Fromage was up for adoption and I began sharing her images, even had a prospective adoptive home, then one day Maggie decided Fromage had come into her life for a reason, and Maggie is her person to this day.
And below is Maggie’s story of how Fromage came into her life and, hence, to mine.
My daughter found Fromage when she was visiting from NY in September, cooking for G-20 protestors. My little anarchist kitty.
I got a tearful phone call, went out in the night to pick her up, utterly unprepared for the fact that she was truly a newborn. Tried dipping bread in milk for her to suckle. No luck, but she latched on to the little piece of brie cheese I offered her. Hence her name. She’s still partial to cheeses.
Fortunately, Bernadette, an important part of my life, answered my tearful call for help, and took Fromage into her extraordinary care.
I was not to be the “forever home” but as each week elapsed, I felt Fromage had come into my life for a reason.
Has she ever. She’s still intrepid — rules the roost with large, orange 10-year-old Mister Peach, and elegant, awkward 4-year-old Cranberry, a loving Siamese I inherited when my mother died in May. I had not had a kitten in many years. Forgot the energy — those wooden shoes Fromage wears as she tears around the hardwood floors — the needle claws and teeth, the insatiable curiosity, and the gentle sweetness.
Below is a little slideshow of her and Giuseppe, and Giuseppe’s tail!
Read more stories about Fromage.
Read more stories in my weekly Rescue Stories series.
Can’t adopt? Foster! Can’t foster? Donate or volunteer.
There are so many ways you can help cats who need homes and care. You may not have room to adopt another cat, but can foster a cat or kitten for a few weeks. If not that, you can volunteer at a shelter or with a rescue, or donate. You do this because you love your cat, and by doing so you help all cats. No matter which of these actions you take, you help to save a life, and make life better for all cats.
- Adopt one of the cats I’ve posted here, or from any shelter or rescue near you, or from Petfinder, to open up a space for another cat to be rescued and fostered.
- Offer to foster cats or kittens for a shelter or rescue near you.
- Volunteer at a shelter or rescue.
- Find a group of volunteers who work with homeless cats and help them with their efforts.
- Donate to a shelter or rescue near you.
If you can foster kittens or adults cats to help prepare them for a forever home, please run to your nearest shelter and find a cat who needs you! Anyone can help with this effort at any level, even if all you do is donate to a shelter or rescue so they can help to pay for the food or medications needed for their foster, or the spay/neuter/veterinary care during a clinic.
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