'A chance at life'
Patti Obana grabs a tiny bottle of formula and lifts a gray and white kitten out of the box at her feet.
It's only her second day with this two-week-old litter, but she knows the drill. As a foster parent in the PAWS Animal Shelter's Bottle Brigade for more than five years, Obana has welcomed more than 35 litters of kittens and puppies into her home during the animals' first few weeks.
"I love watching them grow and knowing that I was able to help these little guys have a chance at life," she says.
For nearly 18 years, volunteers like Obana have shared the responsibility of caring for orphaned and abandoned animals, primarily cats, through the West Linn animal shelter's Bottle Brigade program.
Shelter founder Sharon Murphy says she currently has a half dozen active foster homes in rotation; some participants keep the animals for about a week before passing them to another member of the Bottle Brigade, while others care for them until they're ready for adoption.
Obana started coming to PAWS a few years ago, so that she and her daughter could play with the cats at the free-roaming shelter. On one particularly busy day at PAWS, Murphy sent Obana home with a litter of foster kittens, and she was hooked.
The work certainly isn't for everyone, Obana says — in their first weeks, the kittens need to be fed every three to four hours day and night, and they often experience digestive issues that require regular baths and cleaning of their space.
"My house is always a mess," she says. "I'm constantly cleaning the litter box and washing towels — it's a lot of work."
And she has to watch for early signs of illness, too.
"They're such tiny little things that any delay in treatment can cause them to crash," she says. "You've got this little tiny life in your hands."
But for Obana, the work has become a passion.
In the kittens' early days, she says they still have their eyes closed and their ears folded down. "They pretty much are just little potatoes with fur," she says.
Soon, she says, they're playing, attacking one another and leaping out of the box that used to contain them.
Since several of her friends have adopted her foster kittens, Obana says she's been able to see some of them become full-grown cats.
'We can save them'
Murphy says that animals, just like children, benefit from receiving plenty of care and affection while they're young. The more attention that her orphaned animals receive from foster parents, she says, the better off they'll be when they're adopted by a permanent family.
"When these kittens get available for adoption, they will be over the top with sweetness because they're so bonded with us," Murphy says. "Our volunteers are some of the most amazing people on earth."
The Bottle Brigade has actually been around longer than the shelter itself, Murphy says. It started back in 1997, when she owned an interior design and accessory shop called Murphy & Company, right up the street from where the shelter is now.
One day a client missed an appointment with her, saying she had trapped two feral cats around her house, taken them to a local veterinarian's office and scheduled them to be euthanized.
Murphy said she couldn't stand the thought of the cats losing their lives simply because they had nowhere to go, so she picked them up from the vet's office and brought them home. The next day, one of the cats gave birth to six kittens and immediately abandoned them, leaving Murphy to care for the litter.
As she bottle-fed and raised the kittens, she realized how much she loved the work. "It was such an amazing experience that I offered to foster for the Oregon Humane Society," she says.
Soon, her shop became more about cats than anything else. In 1999, she closed the shop altogether and opened PAWS, which specializes in "caring for newborn, orphaned baby animals as well as providing tender loving care for homeless, unwanted or abandoned animals," according to its website.
The shelter has fostered more than 2,000 kittens over the years, and has adopted out thousands of cats and kittens and hundreds of dogs, as well as goats, sheep, bunnies, rats, turtles, cockatiels and a pig and a horse.
The litters of kittens have come from as far away as Pendleton and Grants Pass, and sometimes even from larger shelters that don't have the capacity to provide the around-the-clock care that newborn animals need. The shelter once took in 40 orphaned kittens in one day.
"I always think, if they can just get them to us, we can save them," Murphy says. "We have never turned away orphaned animals."