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.
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.
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.
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.