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    Volunteering in Salt Lake (and Los Angeles): Bottle-feeding Kittens with Best Friends!

    I’m a big fan of volunteering, as you may have noticed if you follow my Instagram feed, and this is the first in a series of posts I’ll be doing over the next however long I have things to write about, where I’ll be talking about some different opportunities for volunteering that I’ve tried out myself. I’ve learned some amazing things and had truly one of a kind experiences as a volunteer, and I think a lot of folks don’t realize how easy it is to get involved in something you love and make a difference in your community. Hearing about it first hand from someone who’s done it helps to answer a lot of questions and hopefully stoke some interest on your part! A lot of what I’ll be writing about involves animals in some way, because that’s where my interest is and my experience is most useful, but I’d encourage all of you to find a volunteer opportunity that fits with your own interests and get to work! You can find volunteer opportunities that are a single day, a couple hours, or a regular commitment… it all depends on how you want to help, and where.

    It’s spring time, which means it’s kitten season, so let’s get started with kittens! Because who doesn’t love kittens?!

    One of the local initiatives I really love is the Kitten Nursery at Best Friends Animal Society. What Best Friends does that’s a bit unique in the animal rescue world is that rather than only operating their own shelter or sanctuary (which they also do, at their location in Kanab), they partner with local city and county animal shelters to promote and facilitate adoption of animals from those government-run facilities. One of those initiatives is a dedicated kitten nursery, where kittens who are still young enough to need bottle feeding get literally around-the-clock care.


    Kittens too young to eat on their own are especially difficult for shelter staff to deal with — shelters don’t typically have the staff or resources to devote to bottle-feeding babies every couple of hours — and taking those kittens into a shelter environment can increase their risk of exposure to disease. Diverting these kittens straight to a dedicated facility with strict sanitation protocols helps tremendously in improving outcomes, which means keeping kittens alive.

    Pro tip! Always bottle feed kittens with them laying belly-down, like they would be doing if they were drinking their mother’s milk straight from the source. A common mistake when bottle-feeding kittens is laying them on their backs like we often do with human infants; this increases the risk that the kitten will aspirate the milk, breathing it into the lungs instead of swallowing it, and can greatly increase the risk of respiratory infection or pneumonia.

    I’m not going to lie, though: volunteering at the kitten nursery is decidedly less than glamorous work. The up side is, you’re surrounded by kittens, and you’re literally keeping them alive. The down side is, it’s hot, smelly, and sometimes heartwrenching. There are a lot of mouths to feed and strict sanitation protocols to follow, so there isn’t a lot of time for cuddling kittens; as soon as you’re done with one litter, you’ll probably need to hurry on to the next group. The youngest kittens are fed formula from a bottle, and getting them to eat can be a fine art form, and so is transitioning them to a more solid gruel when they’re old enough to be weaning off the bottle. (Gruel is a spectacularly messy mixture of warm canned food and formula, and if you can figure out a way to feed it to kittens without getting it absolutely everywhere, you’re far more of an expert than me.) There’s a lot of weighing kittens to make sure they’re eating and growing, emptying litter boxes, cleaning up a lot of pee and poop, doing your best to get the littlest ones to pee and poop (that’s right, you have to help them do it, how fun!), and struggling to get crabby kittens to eat. You’ll also be cleaning kennels as you go, warming heating pads for the kittens (keeping them warm is vital to keeping them going!), preparing new formula and gruel as needed, and refilling food and water bowls (usually the kittens have spilled everything everywhere) for the older “independent eaters,” too. There’s an awful lot of work to be done!

    But it’s also incredibly rewarding to get a baby latched onto a bottle and gulping down their food, or see the ones you’ve already fed dozing in a big pile, content and purring with their full bellies.

    Sanitation is also super important to keep any illness from spreading through the nursery or just from one litter of kittens to the next, so between each feeding session you’ll be cleaning, disinfecting, sterilizing bottles, preparing new food, putting on a new gown and gloves, things like that. Some volunteers at the nursery do nothing but cleaning, bless their wonderful and dedicated souls.


    Feeding “weaners,” kittens who have graduated from formula to gruel. It is not a neat or easy job.

    You can’t even kiss the kittens on their tiny soft heads, because that would enable the spread of disease from one kitten to another. (If you’re going to kiss one, you’re going to kiss them all, right? It just makes sense.) Luckily, when you’re not at the kitten nursery, you can visit the Best Friends adoption center in Sugarhouse, where kittens who have grown up enough to leave the nursery and enter the adoption program are all housed. Let me repeat that: during the spring and summer months when the world is awash in kittens, there’s an entire room full of kittens at the Best Friends adoption center that you can just walk into, sit down, and play with kittens. For hours, if you want to. I do it a lot when I’m having a stressful day, because kittens playing with your shoelaces is a great way to let go of really anything that’s bothering you.

    What makes it easy: Kitten nursery staff want you to do a good job, and they’ll give you all the training and support you need to make it happen. Best Friends is one of the most organized, technologically savvy, well-staffed organizations I’ve ever volunteered for. The schedule is also probably the most flexible of any volunteer gig I’ve ever done: you can pick 2 hours pretty much any time of the day or night. Shifts are available 7 days a week, 22 hours a day. Seriously. Once you’re completely finished with training, you sign up for two-hour shifts whenever you want to do them, and you can sign up via the web, so it’s super easy to do. (I made a habit of signing up for 2 shifts in a row, but 4 hours was my absolute maximum; any longer than that and I’d start to make mistakes in my record-keeping.)

    What makes it hard: You’ll have to learn strict sanitation protocols and be able to follow them religiously. The goal is to get you to a point where you can work independently, go into a kennel room and just power through as many feedings as you possibly can during your shift. It’s absolutely worth it. But the hardest thing — and you do need to be prepared for it — is that sometimes kittens just don’t make it. The nurseries operated by Best Friends alone, not even counting all the other rescues that run similar efforts, save many thousands of kittens a year. But kittens are also small and fragile and sometimes despite best efforts they fail to thrive. Sometimes they start to falter right in your hands, and sometimes you’ll come in for your next shift and kittens that were doing great last time you saw them are just no longer there. It’s really tough, but it’s something you need to be able to handle to help all these kids get their best chance at life.

    How to get started: Visit this page on volunteering with Best Friends Utah, and it’ll give you all the details you need to know to get started. For the nursery there’s typically an orientation, followed by individual training sessions at the nursery itself to teach you all of the skills and protocols. There’s also a kitten nursery you can help with in Los Angeles, so if you live in LA, check out this page for more information!

    I met someone recently who told me they’d thought about volunteering at the kitten nursery, but the training sessions were always full and it seemed like they had more than enough people. Trust me: they always need more. Keeping that many shifts staffed is really hard work, and not everyone who signs up for training will stick around. I did a lot of shifts in the wee hours of the morning, since I’m a night owl, and whether I did the 2am shift or the 2pm shift, it was rare to be completely caught up and have a little breathing room. A lot of the time there’d be only one person working in each room, which meant you were perpetually playing catch-up. I haven’t worked in the kitten nursery for awhile because of other commitments (I might need to get back to it this year), so my information may be a little out of date, but I feel pretty confident saying that more volunteers are always a good thing.

    Feed! Meeeeee!

    Other ways to help: Not sure you’re up for the nursery grind, but still want to help? Foster homes are always needed for kittens! Instead of trying to feed a whole bunch of different litters in the nursery, you could take home a litter and spoil them rotten there, instead. No gown or gloves required, and you can kiss their little heads all you want! In fact, it’s very much encouraged: one of the important things that foster carers do for these kittens, most of whom are born wild to feral mothers, is provide them the kind of human socialization they need to help them be as adoptable as they can possibly be. The downside to fostering is you do have to eventually give the kittens up, but you also get to enjoy them at their cutest. The potential to be covered in kittens in your own home is both real and enticing.

    You can also make a donation or send something from the kitten nursery wishlist if you don’t live in the area and would like to help. The nursery goes through a ton of items like gowns, gloves, puppy pads, paper towels, and other sanitation equipment, and everything on that list is something that will definitely be used if you decide to order it on behalf of the nursery.

    There are a ton of other volunteer opportunities at Best Friends, in Salt Lake where I live, at their headquarters in Kanab in southern Utah, and at their other facilities in Los Angeles, New York, and Atlanta. You can walk dogs, help with spay/neuter clinics, help with no-kill initiatives and community cat trap/neuter/release programs… basically if you like dogs and cats, they’ll have a way for you to help.

    And one last note, since as a bird nerd I’m completely unable to refrain from mentioning this… I absolutely love cats, and I have one of my own. But if you’re adopting a cat or one of these adorable kittens, please make your cat a strictly-indoor pet! Aside from being at risk out in the world from cruel people and passing cars, cats are responsible for an awful lot of death and carnage when left to their own devices in the outdoors. Estimates range from millions to potentially billions of animals falling prey to cats each year in the US, and inevitably many of those will be native species that are already at risk. The best way to keep both wildlife and your cats safe is to keep cats indoors.

    Bright green day gecko sitting on a log

    Glorious Geckos!

    I’ve always liked reptiles, but until recently I never particularly wanted to own any. Then I checked out a gecko exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah, the same weekend that a big bi-annual reptile expo I’d just learned about was coming to town, and…

    Well. Geckos happened.

    For some reason when I thought about reptile ownership, it hadn’t really occurred to me that there were plenty of species that wouldn’t require a desert habitat (the desert and I are arch enemies and I will not have even a tiny slice of it in my house). I didn’t realize you could have a reptile pet that didn’t require all sorts of heat lamps (I would probably burn my house down) and live food (I would possibly burn my house down on purpose because I’d inevitably let a bunch of feeder insects escape and populate my home), but it turns out there are a number of species that can be kept without much equipment and that do great on pre-made diets, no insect colony required. (Though now that I’m more educated about all of it, the idea of heat lamps and breeding roach colonies on purpose doesn’t scare me so much anymore!)

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    Things To Do in Utah: Sleigh Ride to the Ice Castles

    Here’s a great winter activity that combines two of my favorite things: harness horses, and amazing photo ops. The Ice Castles in Midway, Utah, is a pretty great attraction all its own: it’s a set of incredible man-made structures built from ice and designed for visitors to wander around and marvel at, slide down, and crawl through. There are little tunnels for the kids to explore, a few ice slides (make sure you wear snow pants, jeans are far too traction-y, I speak from personal experience here), and a stand with hot drinks and snacks.

    In the evenings, the Ice Castles are lit by color-changing lights inside the ice, which makes for a pretty incredible display; plus out in Midway, the stars are far more visible than they are in Salt Lake. This year they’ve also featured photo ops with the Frozen princesses and performances by fire-breathers. (Now I’m sad I missed this year. I’ll have to go back again for those fire-breathers!)

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    Short eared owl perched on a tree branch

    Featured Creature Friday: The Short-Eared Owl

    (Featured photo above by Kathy & Sam from Beaverton, OR, USA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

    You might have noticed that things are getting a little birdier around here lately. I hope you’re prepared for more of the same, because since I started volunteering with Hawkwatch International, I’m soooorta obsessed with raptors. Sorry, not sorry. So here’s the first of what I’m sure will be many Featured Creature Fridays on the theme of birds of prey: the short-eared owl!

    Short eared owl in flight in the hills over Glen Devon, Breadalbane, Scotland

    Photo by Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland (Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    The thing about short-eared owls is, they are both majestic as hell and adorable times approximately one million. They don’t want to be, because they don’t necessarily appreciate the attention and they’d rather just get on with the business of being tiny angry birds, but they’re just so cute. Case in point: Hawkwatch’s newest education bird, Galileo.

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    H is for Harrier – Photographing Raptors at Farmington Bay

    I’ve written before about my completely abysmal bird-watching skills, and I’m sorry to report that they haven’t gotten much better since then. I’ve devised a better strategy, though: these days I’m usually looking for bigger birds.

    I’ve been volunteering for awhile with Hawkwatch International, learning to handle their education birds and traveling around to events and schools talking to people about our birds and why we need to protect raptors. I’ve also been getting involved in some of the many science projects that Hawkwatch does to monitor raptor populations, as well, so I’ve been learning to ID the different types of raptors that can be seen in my local area, and I’ve definitely been able to spot them more often and identify the species and sometimes the sex more reliably.

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    Things To Do in Utah: See Elk by Horse-Drawn Sleigh at Hardware Ranch


    It’s a well-known not-secret that I’ll go out of my way to take a picture of a horse. If it’s a draft horse working in harness, I’ll go even farther out of my way. Which is how I end up every few years driving about two hours through a canyon in the winter time to take a twenty-minute horse-drawn wagon ride at the Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area.


    It’s a great activity especially for lovers of wildlife and rural tradition; visitors can take a horse-drawn tour through a peacefully grazing herd of wild elk and get a much closer look at the animals than they usually will in the wilderness. There’s also an interpretive center for visitors with displays on the local native wildlife, pelts to touch, and other exhibits, along with a beautiful view out over the wildlife viewing area.

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    Things To Do In Utah: The Power of Poison at NHMU

    Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

    Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

    Okay, listen. I’m a nerd. Let’s get that right out of the way, just in case you haven’t noticed yet, because I want you to understand that I love the Natural History Museum of Utah. (And am now finally a member! Hell yes!) In the last few years they’ve been host to some seriously remarkable special exhibits. The one about the history of horses? Transcendent, even if I wanted to carry on a spirited argument with that one placard about horse shoes. The one that was entirely about geckos? Life-changing. I literally own four geckos now and my life is profoundly enriched and I would possibly kill a man to be able to go see that particular exhibit again. (It’s cool, I went to the poisons exhibit, I totally know how to kill a man now.)

    But I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced the kind of profound museum-related disappointment that I felt when I reached the end of the Power of Poisons exhibit that’s currently on display at NHMU. How had I reached the end? Why, and wherefore? Surely there was more I needed to learn about poisons. SURELY.

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    Featured Creature Friday: Remarkable Rats

    Photo courtesy of National Parks Service

    Photo courtesy of National Parks Service

    Okay, I know, the Featured Creature is usually about animals a little more exotic than your average rat. We’ve lived with rats (some of us even voluntarily), we’ve used them extensively for a very long time as research subjects, we’ve helped them spread all over the world and destroy fragile island ecosystems… what more could there possibly be to say about rats? Well, I thought this week with our Featured Creature it might be fun to try something a little different and offer you a collection of interesting links for things you might not know about a well-known sort of creature. You might be surprised, for instance, with a few of rats’ less-publicized qualities and talents, like empathy and even altruism. A study published a few years ago showed that rats will free their captive brethren, if they’re able, even if there isn’t any sort of actual reward in it for them. They may even save the captive some of their food, which if you ask me is a clear signal of good feelings from any species. (I mean I could share my Cheetos with you, but signs point to no.) Rats will also remember who’s helped them before, and are more likely to help other rats who’ve helped them. They aren’t just helping each other, though; what’s got me really excited this week is how rats are helping us. Non-profit organization APOPO is training rats and their handlers to do incredibly important work: detecting tuberculosis, and searching out hidden landmines. Sure, they don’t do that work spontaneously, they didn’t just wander into a lab one day and ask to be pointed at the tuberculosis test samples. But they’re stunningly good at the work. A single Giant Pouched Rat can check more TB samples in ten minutes than a lab technician can manage in a day… and the rats have a better accuracy rate, too, which has resulted in many previously undiagnosed TB patients being able to get life-saving medical treatment. You can’t beat these rats for mine detection, either. They’re light enough that even if they step directly on a landmine, they won’t set it off, and they’ve proved to be more efficient than mine-detection dogs at doing the work.

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    The Memory of Joy in Present Grief

    alpineloop2013_0003There are dozens of dogs in the shelter, but he’s the only one you see.

    The kennel is a squat concrete outbuilding, and the sound inside is cacophanous, almost too loud to bear, between the hollow drumming of rain on the roof and the voices of the dogs, all raising the alert. You can’t actually see a single one around the plywood partitions between the chain-link kennels… except for him. He’s massive, one paw braced against the fence as he casually props himself up, head easily rising above the partitions, to get a look at you. He’s not making a sound, but the look on his face says, It took you long enough.

    He’s not the dog you’re here to see, but you know immediately that he’s the one you’ll take home. When the papers are signed and it’s done, you open up the rear door of your truck to lay a blanket over the seat, and he pulls his leash out of the kennel worker’s hand and streaks through the open door, scrambles muddy-pawed right under your arm and into the back seat. Once he’s inside, the look he gives you is equal parts desperate and defiant. You don’t know where he’s come from or what he’s been through, but it’s obvious he knows a thing or two about being left behind.

    You drive home with him peering over your shoulder, as if he’s always been there.


    You figure a dog will help you get out of the house more, get in some exercise. You don’t entirely count on the way he changes the landscape of your existence. When you’re getting lost in your head he noses at your hand to pull you back; when you’re feeling alone, he slips in and leans against your legs, to remind you that you’re not.

    You explore redwood forests together, chilly northern beaches, mountains and birch groves, canyons and landmarks. He drives you half crazy sometimes, and he keeps you sane, too. He’s there with you nearly everywhere you go, but you’ll always remember this the most: rain-slicked streets, and it’s dark enough that you can hardly even make out the shape of him beside you, except where he blocks out the reflection of moonlight on the wet road. But you can hear the clicking of his claws against the asphalt, and the cheerful sound of his panting as he keeps pace with you, and it’s the most free you’ve ever felt, like the two of you could run forever without slowing down. At night, he crawls into bed with you, tucks himself into a ball in the space behind your bent legs, a contented dot on the comma of your bodies.


    You tell yourself he’s just getting older. He’s maybe eight now, nine, and it’s a decent run for a big dog. He starts slowing down, and it happens by tiny degrees but seems to come on sudden, too; first his hind feet start scraping, at first every now and again and then more and more often, against the sidewalk. You think maybe his thighs are losing their muscling, and then you think it’s all in your imagination. His walking gait changes from four beats to a strange wobbling two-by-two pace, but has he always walked that way? You’re suddenly uncertain of everything. Then he doesn’t want to go jogging with you anymore, can’t manage a slow trot for even a yard, and where he used to quietly egg you on to make your walks longer, now he lags behind even as you’re already turning home. You throw a ball for him and he stumbles and falls, like he’s not entirely in control of his own limbs; once in the span of a single game would be nothing, twice is suspicious, the third breaks your heart.

    It’s not your imagination. You’ve got the Internet; you diagnose it yourself. The vet’s only a formality; there’s nothing he can do, anyway.


    He doesn’t seem to entirely understand why his body doesn’t work right anymore. That’s the worst part. There’s no pain, and that’s the best you can hope for, all things considered. What you can’t help is the anxiety, which gets worse the more his body fails; he paces and frets, startles at the smallest noises, quivers with fear in response to sounds that you can’t even detect. The vet gives you Prozac, but all it does is turn the dial down a little; now you don’t just need to worry about his body giving out, you need to think about how much of this stress he can take. When he’s not panicking, he’s sleeping, spends most of the day curled up on your bed. Instead of walks, you drive him to the park and settle in together on a picnic blanket with a book. He likes to lie in the grass and people-watch, but after awhile even that exhausts him; he sprawls on his side in the grass and sleeps there, too. His tail wags easily enough (if a little crookedly) and he’s just as happy to share the bed as he always was (he kicks in his sleep, viciously, but he always has). But where he used to ghost your every move, following you around the house, now he disappears into quiet rooms and keeps to himself. He seems tired even when he’s already sleeping.

    You agonize over the when; everyone tells you, “you’ll know when it’s time.” You’ve always figured that was true, but you know the lie of it now.

    You don’t know. This isn’t anything like certainty. You still have to make the decision, anyway.



    The morning is overcast and cool, and the park still smells like rain from the night before. Close your eyes and you could be eight hundred miles away, on the coast again, on the same streets you used to run together. He doesn’t even feel it as the mobile vet slides the needle with the sedative into his skin, just lies there and takes the treats and attention on offer, until he slowly falls asleep. You curl up around him while the vet shaves his leg, finds the vein, gives him the last shot. You’re in the grass, under a low-spread tree, on a beautiful summer day, and then he’s gone.

    You drive home with an empty collar sitting on the passenger seat.

    You weren’t ready to be left behind, but he’s gone anyway.

    Featured Creature Friday: The Great Potoo

    greatpotooI didn’t even have to think of an adjective to describe this week’s featured creature, because even its official name thinks it’s just great. I’ll tell you right now why the Great Potoo is so awesome: huge yellow eyes and a gaping mouth make it look like a completely fictional animal invented by the Jim Henson puppet workshop, and its most common call sounds like it’s trying to call its mom from some Lovecraftian afterlife.

    This nocturnal bird can be found in ranges from southern Mexico into Central and South America, and they require trees for their lifestyle, so they tend to live in woodlands and on the edges of forests. Their feathers, in a range of assorted browns, look pretty unremarkable until you see the Great Potoo’s greatest trick, which is its disappearing act. Its coloration is perfect camouflage against the bark of trees where it perches, but it also spends a lot of its time actively pretending to be the tree. It takes on a posture to make itself look like a broken branch, and chooses ideal perches that help it carry forth that illusion, like it’s really dedicated to performance art. Really boring, very still performance art. They’re incredibly dedicated to the art, too; a Great Potoo won’t abandon its tree impression until a predator is almost on top of it.

    This strategy carries over to their child-rearing habits, too; instead of building an elaborate nest, the Great Potoo lays an egg and sits it on top of a stump or in a little hollow on a tree, and then the parent sits on top of the egg, and later the chick, occasionally taking off after flying insects (and sometimes even bats!) , and then flying right back to continue the long-term tree impression.