Interview With Amanda Skuldt of Austin Pets Alive

Pets!!!! Kittens! Who loves them? I do! I also love Amanda Skuldt of Austin Pets Alive who fosters little baby kittens and helps get them placed in loving homes.

Tell us a little about APA and why they need support and volunteers?

Austin Pets Alive is a non-profit organization whose volunteers and paid staff work tirelessly to make Austin a no-kill city. My understanding is that “no-kill” is achieved when 95% or more of the animals taken into the city shelter leave alive. There are several overlapping issues that lead to APA needing support and volunteers.

First, the goal of “no-kill” is an ambitious one. Prior to APA, the Austin city shelter euthanized approximately 25% of all animals they took in. This number is based on the information I was given when surrendering some feral kittens we found perhaps 3 years ago. That means that APA has taken on the approximately 20% of animals (about 5,000 annually) that the city would have put down. Who are these animals? Overwhelmingly, they are unweaned kittens, puppies with Parvo, and cats with ringworm (a completely treatable fungal infection). APA also does take in dogs with behavioral problems and puts them through rigorous rehabilitation and resocialization programs that are proving to be very effective.

Second, many Austin locales (East Austin especially) has a serious problem with feral cats. According to the San Diego based Feral Cat Coaliton, a single unsprayed female, via herself and her unsprayed female offspring, can be responsible for 3200 kittens. There are some local programs such as the feral cat program through the Austin Humane Society that provides for the spaying and neutering of feral cats that we work with actively also.

Finally, given the fact that there are so many feral cats in Austin and so many found unweaned kittens, there is a desperate need for committed volunteers. The litters that come into the nursery are categorized by the hurricane system (that is, the first litter of the season is A1, then A2, A3, … AZ, B1, etc.) I was in there this morning and the most recent litter was U21. There are 27 letters in the alphabet and that means that so far this year, the APA bottle baby nursery has taken in 562 litters of kittens (not kittens, litters ranging from 1 to 12 kittens). These kittens often need round the clock care (bottle feeding, medication, warming up their “snuggle disks” to keep their body temperatures high) and volunteers are obviously required.

What drew you to working with APA and with the bottle babies in particular?

We live in East Austin and we’ve taken in found or feral kittens to foster and home for the last 4 years. The house that I moved into 4 years ago turned out to have a feral cat colony living underneath. One day, one of the mama’s showed up on my porch with four kittens and we’ve been taking care of them ever since. Between the “outside” cats and the “inside” cats, we take care of 8 cats total (plus any fosters we might have at the moment) ranging from 3 to 7 years old. We also work with the Austin Humane Society Feral Cat Program and trap/spay/release cats in the area to help cut down on the number of kittens wandering into the nursery.
Oddly enough, the success we’ve had with the trap/spay/release made it so that this season we had no kittens in the house. I got involved with the APA bottle baby nursery because as the season wore on, it became more and more apparent that I missed having kittens in my life. It made sense to take that energy to a place where there were way more kittens than caregivers.

I suspect everyone thinks that working in the nursery is filled with fun and kittens, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a volunteer?

The nursery is amazing and heartwarming and heartbreaking, there’s no way around that. Today, I fed a four-week old kitten mashed-up wet kitten food mixed with water (what is known as “gruel”) from a syringe because she had too bad of an upper respiratory infection to eat on her own. She was the most awesome little kitten, all long-haired and wanting to snuggle… She was one of those kittens who look you in the eye and make you realize that if you weren’t there, she’d be starving. No, really, she just hung out with me for about 15 minutes and we snuggled and I fed her and she looked at me in the eye with her only one eye (the other was crusted over from the infection).

I suppose the most challenging thing is when the kittens get sick, or worse, die There are several diseases that can afflict kittens, the worst of which is pan-leukopenia (very similar to Parvo in dogs) that has a very high mortality rate (nearly 95% in unvaccinated kittens) and worst of all, the virus can live in the environment for up to a year. This year, the nursery had a bad outbreak and lost a lot of kittens. Because there is no reliable test for it, it was a while before we all understood what was happening and there was a span of a few weeks where I had many kittens die in my arms, both in the nursery and fosters at home. That’s obviously the worst thing…

However, the nursery manager got it under control as soon as she figured out what was going on and with the constant medical care, intensive safety protocols, and vigilant fosters, we managed to stem the tide. The new nursery at the Town Lake Center now has a quarantined pan-leuk ward that allows us to treat those kittens while keeping the others healthy.

What has surprised you about your time with APA (or the cats)?

Honestly, it’s how freaking hearty the kittens are and how amazing the volunteers are. We have bottle baby kittens (those that are so young, they should still be nursing) that should be fed every 2 hours, yet sometimes circumstances require that they go 12 hours or more and yet they’re still in there with their tiny little selves all ready to go when you pop open the cage. The bottle baby nursery has only one full-time staff (the manager), one intern, and a few paid overnight feeders (who were just brought on recently), everything else is run by volunteers. The tricky thing about volunteers (as with any organization) is that the recruitment is way higher than the retention. That is, we train more than 4 times the people than actually show up to do a weekly two-hour shift. This means that the people who do come back, and who commit are dedicated, knowledgable, and passionate (also, they’re pretty awesome).

What qualities of people are the APA looking for? How do people get involved?

I don’t know much about the dog section of APA, but at least as far as the nursery, APA is looking for people who can commit at least two hours per week during kitten season (normally May to Oct) to feed, clean, and medicate the kittens. Also, it is important that the cats you already care for are vaccinated (as sometimes you’ll come into contact with transmittable diseases). There is only one zoological disease from kittens that humans can get (that I am aware of) and that this ringworm, which is a fungal infection akin to athletes foot. I started out being super afraid of it, but as time has gone by, and we’ve had kittens with it, we’ve chilled out a bit.

At the end of the day, people self-select for this work; Do you care about animals? Do you have two hours a week that you would have otherwise spent on facebook to feed kittens who have no ability to feed themselves? Can you commit to this for about 7 months? If so, APA has trainings every week. In order to become a feeder you go through a two hour training, do about six hours of “shadowing” so that you learn the ins and outs of the nursery, and then can do shifts on your own. The APA bottle baby nursery posts their training schedule every month, which you can find by going to  http://www.austinpetsalive.org/category/bottle-baby-nursery/. They also have a facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/APA-Bottle-Babies/123536157677431.

Here’s a picture of the lovely kitten that my family was lucky enough to get from APA. Amanda and her family fostered Bean and she’s been with us since June. She survived Pan-Leuk but the rest of her siblings did not. She’s brave and fierce and loving. We are so lucky.

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