Alley Cat Allies helps communities save kittens’ lives with Leave Them BeTM campaign

Alley Cat Allies has plenty of experience protecting cats through emergency situations with FieldHaven Feline Center in Northern California. So when the COVID-19 pandemic created another crisis on the West Coast, we once more provided emergency funding to FieldHaven to set a new lifesaving program into motion.

The program is called Kitten Sitters, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: babysitting kittens while leaving them in their outdoor home with their mother.

“There are no special hoops to jump through in this program. When someone in the community finds kittens outdoors with their mother, they are given the tools to watch over them right where they are, while providing essentials like food and water,” says Becky Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies. “This simple but effective approach is the key to saving the most kittens’ lives, now and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.”

Alley Cat Allies has always promoted an innovative Leave Them BeTM strategy to help kittens born outdoors. A mother cat is her kittens’ best caregiver, and they should not be separated from her before they are weaned.

When the kittens are old enough, they can be spayed or neutered while their mother is spayed and returned outdoors through a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program.

FieldHaven Feline Center also knows that Leave Them Be is the best approach, but never had time to create a program of its own. The COVID-19 crisis, however, has pushed us all to change our routines. In response to “Shelter in Place” and social distancing orders, FieldHaven staff knew they would have to adjust their services to continue protecting cats and kittens while keeping everybody safe.

And when Alley Cat Allies’ COVID-19 emergency grant arrived, FieldHaven CEO Joy Smith knew there was no better time to take Kitten Sitters from idea to reality.

“Having the support of Alley Cat Allies has been so instrumental for our credibility among caregivers,” says Smith. “What’s happening now is is a dynamic change in culture, where more people are accepting the Kitten Sitters concept as we get this program rolling at a critical time.”

What Does it Mean to be a “Kitten Sitter?”

Babysitters make life easier for parents by providing another set of watchful eyes, meals, and other necessities for their children. Leave Them Be takes a similar approach for kittens.

Caregivers don’t have to and shouldn’t even try to take over a mother cat’s role by providing hands-on care or bottle-feeding. They can simply set up a warm outdoor shelter, provide the mother cat with food and water, and let her do her job while they watch over the kittens from a distance.

FieldHaven’s Kitten Sitters program, supported by our funding, follows the same blueprint.

“With families sheltering in place in their homes, looking for distractions and projects to do, what can be more fun than watching over a litter of kittens?” Smith says. “We tell them if they see kittens: start sittin’, but hands off.”

FieldHaven provides Kitten Sitters with guidance and training as well as food and supplies. If anyone has questions or if a kitten is in need of veterinary care, a team of kitten experts is just a phone or video call away. FieldHaven has veterinarians and fosters at the ready to provide targeted attention.

Once the kittens hit the 2 months and two pounds benchmark, FieldHaven facilitates their adoption and makes arrangements to carry out spay and neuter and vaccination (for the mother cat, too, of course) as soon as clinics reopen from COVID-19 closings.

Adventures in Kitten Sitting

When the Debbie S. and her mother, Lorraine R., first connected with FieldHaven in early March—just before California’s “Shelter in Place” orders took effect—they had no idea they would become some of the first Kitten Sitters in FieldHaven’s Kitten Sitter program.

Lorraine had been feeding a community cat, Sunny, in her yard in Sun City, California. She and Debbie thought Sunny might be pregnant. Soon afterHowever, before they could find out for sure, FieldHaven received a call from Cheryl Z., who lives in Lorraine’s neighborhood.

“It’s springtime, and the first nice day and I decide to clean my storage shed. I go in…and all the sudden something caught my eye. In a big flowerpot I had…something moved. I looked in and counted 1…2…3…4…5 kittens!” Cheryl recalls. “And I don’t know what to do.”

FieldHaven staff assured Cheryl that she could leave the kittens alone and allow their mother to nurse and raise them. Cheryl followed their instructions and kept a careful eye on them while keeping her distance.

One day, Cheryl watched as the mother cat left her kittens, crossed her yard, hopped a fence—and headed right into Lorraine’s yard to eat.

Lorraine and Cheryl realized then that the mother cat was Sunny. She hadn’t disappeared, but had chosen a safe and hidden spot to give birth. Under FieldHaven’s advice, the two women teamed up to watch over Sunny and her family in Cheryl’s shed until the kittens were weaned.

Fluffy orange kitten

Sunny’s kittens were socialized and adopted into loving homes.

Sunny did her job beautifully, and weeks later, the kittens left the nest healthy and strong. Debbie then agreed to socialize the kittens for adoption.

Today, all the kittens are in loving homes, vaccinated and microchipped through the Kitten Sitter program with funding from Alley Cat Allies. FieldHaven had each adopter pre-pay for the kittens’ spay and neuter through their adoption form. They will perform the surgeries as soon as their clinic can operate at full capacity again.

Mother cat Sunny has already been spayed and returned her to her outdoor home in Lorraine and Cheryl’s neighborhood—where she belongs.

“This story really highlights how the Alley Cat Allies grant helps us,” says Smith of the Kitten Sitters program. “More and more people are starting to jump in and say ‘yeah, this is the thing to do.’”

Leave Them Be is Key, Now and Always

With kitten season in full swing, it’s critical that people know the best way to help kittens outdoors. In most cases, that is allowing the kittens to stay with their mother in their outdoor home until they are old enough to be spayed or neutered.

Alley Cat Allies’ Leave Them Be campaign is providing humane education so kittens are no longer separated from their mothers or taken to animal shelters where their lives are at risk.

Supporting FieldHaven’s Kitten Sitter program is just one way we’re saving kittens in this challenging time—but it doesn’t end with kitten season or with the pandemic.

With help from our supporters, Leave Them Be is expanding to more communities and educating people to take the right action to ensure the best outcome for kittens all year round.

Learn more about our Leave Them Be campaign at alleycat.org/LeaveThemBe.

To learn more about Alley Cat Allies’ COVID-19 emergency response and find lifesaving information for cats during the pandemic, visit alleycat.org/Coronavirus.