Like many animal rescue advocates, Toni Sestak started fostering kittens to fill a need. She was volunteering at the San Francisco SPCA when her cat passed away. She had space in her home and her heart, so she agreed to foster a mother cat and a litter of kittens. A few years later, she visited the San Francisco city shelter and discovered it did not have a foster program. For many kittens, this meant an untimely end.
"People were taking home kittens if they could, and the others — if they didn’t go to the SPCA, they were euthanized," Toni says. "So I decided to just help out for a year, and here I am, 14-and-a-half years later."
Toni founded her nonprofit rescue organization, Toni’s Kitty Rescue, in 2003. She works with nearly 100 foster families to provide care and find homes for hundreds of unwanted kittens in the San Francisco area each year. Most of the kittens come to Toni’s Rescue from San Francisco Animal Care and Control, where they return to be adopted once they are mature and healthy enough and they’ve been adequately socialized.
Having been in the business for so long, Toni has heard her share of amazing and downright improbable rescue stories.
"We’ve had people come in and tell us every kind of story in the world about where they found these kittens," Toni says. "Sometimes they’ll find them in the wheel well of a car, so we’ll get these kittens covered in oil and grease and just scared to death. One group was born on a roof, and the woman that found them has become one of my best foster parents."
Recently Toni rescued a litter of four kittens who were found in a dumpster in McLaren Park. They were in "terrible shape," and one had to be euthanized immediately. Two others died within a couple of days. The only survivor was still in critical condition, and Toni was not sure they could save him. Amazingly, the kitten thrived, and his story got the happy ending it deserved.
"He had a curly tail, so we named him Curly, and he just got adopted," Toni says. “He was very touch-and-go for a month and a half. We didn’t think we were going to be able to save him."
Unfortunately, when rescuing kittens, particularly when they’re only a week to 10 days old, death is relatively common. According to Toni, the weakest and sickest kittens are born to feral moms in the season’s second litters. Many of these kittens do not make it, and that can be hard on new foster parents.
"It’s really hard having to get the foster parent over the fact that it’s not their fault," Toni says. "I end up doing a lot of grief counseling — convincing them that this happens to all of us. When you take in a lot of them, you’re going to lose a lot of them."
Despite the losses, Toni’s Rescue sees far more success stories. Many volunteers have become extremely skilled at socializing feral kittens. Often the process begins with confinement in a crate coupled with burrito-wrapping, petting, holding, and treat-giving to earn trust. Gradually the kittens are moved into a bathroom or other small space before being granted the run of the house.
"It’s a slow process when they’re older," Toni says. "But when they’re young — if I’ve got six kittens that are super friendly and one or two ferals that are maybe six weeks old, I just put them in with the rest of my friendly cats. They pick up that the other cats like us, and they acclimate pretty naturally."
Occasionally older kittens cannot be socialized, and in these cases Toni advocates for having them spayed and neutered and their ear tipped before relocating them to a safe outdoor space, such as someone’s backyard. She has six feral cats living in her own backyard, and she says the experience has been amazing.
"I see them every morning on the deck," she says. "They were not going to pass behavior at the shelter, so they had no place to go but be euthanized. They’re about seven years old now, and they’re really healthy and fun to watch. They’re just really nice cats and very easy to take care of."
Kitten season will pick up again in March, and Toni and crew are ready. Despite the many challenges of rescuing the most vulnerable cats, they’ve learned that bottle-fed kittens make the most amazing pets.
"When kittens are bottle-fed, they think that every person is the greatest in the world," Toni says. "They love people. They’re just wonderful cats. We get a lot of feedback from people saying adopting a foster kitten was the best thing they ever did."
All photos courtesy of Toni’s Kitty Rescue. For more adorable updates, like the group on Facebook.
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