The kitten is tiny, barely 7 inches long. Cradled in the volunteer's arms, it kneads the baby bottle with its paws and its ears start to twitch. That's a sure sign the kitten has learned to bottle feed, according to Ann McElwain
"Their ears wiggle back and forth once they start suckling," McElwain says. "It's adorable."
Early on a Saturday morning, I'm among the 15 fledgling feline nursemaids ranged around a table at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Animal Care & Control (AC&C) Shelter on Byrum Drive. We're receiving initial volunteer training from McElwain on how to properly feed and care for orphaned kittens between the ages of one day and four weeks old, or neonates, at the shelter's kitten nursery. The nursery was launched last year with an $11,000 grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Though veterinarians and veterinary technicians are on site, more than 200 volunteers staff the facility. Before the nursery opened in April 2017, orphaned kittens were sent to traditional foster homes to be bottle fed, but neonates have to be fed every two to three hours.
"As you can imagine, the pool of foster homes with the ability to do that is very small," Melissa Knicely, a CMPD spokesperson, says. Hence, the kitten nursery cares for the fragile fur balls, which often would not survive without their mothers, until they are weaned and ready to enter foster homes. Last year, according to AC&C's website, its kitten adoption rate increased by 38.7 percent, the transfers of kittens to other rescue groups and organizations increased by 34.5 percent, and kitten euthanasia decreased by 42.3 percent.
"Since the introduction of the nursery, we're saving many more kittens," Knicely says, "but now we have to find many more homes."
The kitten nursery is one of several Charlotte organizations designed to care for and find permanent homes for the city's cats and kittens. I had signed up for volunteer training at the nursery expecting to discover a straightforward feline pipeline from nursery to foster home to forever home, but the reality is more complex. In addition to AC&C, the various players caring for the Q.C.'s kitties include the Humane Society of Charlotte, municipal shelters across the region, several pet rescue/spay and neuter organizations and not one, but two cat cafes — relaxed and cool hangouts designed to introduce cat lovers to their next best friend. Knicely tweaks the old saying: It takes a village to care for Charlotte's feline friends.
"When we opened the nursery in April this year, we had 18 kittens," McElwain says. "By the end of the month we had 88."
Speaking by phone a few weeks after our nursery training session, McElwain explains that last year's warm winter extended the breeding cycles for cats, resulting in a population explosion. She runs through the facility's procedures for dealing with this influx of neonates. Kittens this young cannot regulate their body heat, so a plastic disc called a Snuggle Safe is heated in a microwave and placed in each carrier, which holds up to four kittens. The neonates are susceptible to upper respiratory infections, and because they are switching from mother's milk to Kitten Milk Replacement, they can develop diarrhea. In addition to cuddling, feeding and weighing the kittens daily to make sure they're thriving, volunteers stimulate each kitten's anus with a cloth to make sure the neonates go to the bathroom. One thing volunteers learn early on is that "poop happens," McElwain says.
To make sure no diseases are transmitted, volunteers wash blankets, carriers and bottles after each feeding, and they always wash their hands. They use a certain hand sanitizer so much that McElwain claims her crew has invented a new fragrance — "Eu de Purell."
McElwain may joke, but the job has its share of heartbreak.
"You can come in one day to feed a kitten, and the next day it may not be there," Knicely says. Fifty kittens died in nursery last year, she continues. It's a relatively low number, but every loss is deeply felt.
When the kittens graduate from bottle-feeding, they go to foster homes to transition to regular food, Knicely explains. From the foster homes, they return to the nursery, where they get a medical checkup before being put up for adoption. The Humane Society of Charlotte, which has partnered closely with AC&C for decades, has stepped up this year, Knicely continues, placing many kittens from the nursery into their network of foster homes.
AC&C continues to bring adult cats into its nursery-adjacent shelter from a variety of sources, including pickups from nuisance calls and pets that owners have surrendered. (As part of the CMPD, AC&C is required by law to bring in these strays and unwanted pets.) Last year, the total number of cats — adults and kittens — adopted from the shelter was 1,971. Knicely stresses that euthanasia is rare at the shelter, reserved for those few animals deemed a threat to the community, or too ill or injured to survive. Knicely adds that animals are never euthanized to make space at the shelter.
This may be due to the animals constantly moving out of the shelter. Though the public can adopt kittens and adult cats at the facility, far more animals are transferred to a myriad of rescue organizations, including 24 groups focused exclusively on cats. Last year, rescue groups pulled 2,064 cats and dogs from the shelter. The lion's share of these feline pickups — both kittens and adult cats — belongs to the Humane Society of Charlotte.
"We have a 99.9 percent live release rate," says Humane Society of Charlotte spokesperson Emily Cook. "That means, outside of extraordinarily rare cases, every animal that comes in to us comes back out." Last year 1,170 cats, many coming from AC&C, were adopted from HSC's main shelter on Toomey Avenue and its adoption center at Petco in Huntersville. These felines range from adults to kittens as young as two months.
The HSC does not adopt out cats that have not been spayed or neutered, Cook adds.
Spaying and neutering is a key component of HSC's strategy to reduce the city's population of unwanted animals. Last year, HSC performed 12,574 spay/neuter surgeries at its two clinics. The surgeries also play a part in Community Cats, the organization's TNR (trap-neuter-release) program.
"If a cat lives outside, it's considered a community cat," says HSC's Community Cat Coordinator Leah Massey. These community cats perform a useful function in the ecosystem, she points out.
"They're doing a community service, eating rats, mice or snakes," Massey says. HSC finds the animals by going into areas where outdoor cats have been picked up by AC&C, or through phone calls to 311 complaining about cats in the neighborhood. Then it spays or neuters the cats and gets them vaccinated for rabies. Without the program, these healthy and useful animals would go to AC&C, where they could end up being euthanized, Cook explains. In 2017 the Community Cats program humanely trapped, neutered or spayed and returned 3,037 community cats to their original environments.
HSC has also launched the Working Cats program to help animals that are not socialized enough to be pets, yet not feral either, Knicely says. She paints a scenario where a feral cat is picked up in response to a nuisance call, and the caller does not want the animal returned to the neighborhood after it's spayed or neutered and vaccinated. Those animals are put up for adoption for workplaces.
"Lots of old buildings have rodents or a mice problem," Knicely says. "These animals can make ideal warehouse or office cats."
Animals that go to HSC's Toomey Avenue shelter get a thorough medical checkup, including blood work and vaccinations. Then they undergo a behavioral assessment from HSC's Behavioral Specialist Leticia Counts. If the cats get a clean bill of mental and medical health, their next stop is Kitty City or Meow Town. Kitty City houses litters of kittens in cages. If you're looking for a pet and see a kitten that captures your heart, a volunteer or staff member will get it out of the cage so you can play with it, Cook says. Across the hall is Meow Town. It's an open room without cages, where adult cats are allowed to create their own community, she continues. An adjoining screened-in patio allows cats some outside time.
"We've seen our adoption rates for cats skyrocket ever since we introduced the cat room in 2013," Cook says, "because now people can meet cats in a less stressful environment."
Cook cites a success story.A wheelchair-bound woman entered Meow Town looking for a particular tailless cat, which she reasoned would work best with her wheelchair. But with cats, things seldom work out as planned.
"Instead, another cat sitting by the window jumped right into her lap in the chair," Cook remembers. "She just looked straight at me and said, 'I guess this is the cat I'm taking home.'"
The open-room concept gets a novel twist at Charlotte's two cat cafes, where the feline adoption center has been turned into a place where people come to socialize.
"Five years ago there was only one cat café in America," Andy Leicester says. "Now there are over 200."
Last April, Leicester and his wife Tamara left the security of their corporate jobs and opened Daily Mews cat café in a 1940s bungalow on Monroe Road. The couple's decision process was simple, if terrifying, according to Leicester.
"We jumped off a cliff and figured it out on the way down," Leicester says, laughing.
The couple is a confessed pair of cat lovers, and it shows in the café's surroundings. We're sitting in the cozy cat lounge, which is adjacent to a gift shop and a café serving beer, coffee and baked goods. As we talk, a content black cat named Angel rubs against my pants leg and purrs. The lounge, which holds 12 adult cats and 15 people who pay $12 an hour for quality cat time, has been completely "catified," Leicester says.
Catify is a standard term in the cat café business, and what it means is that the lounge is a feline playground. Ledges wide enough for easy cat navigation ring the walls leading to a suspension bridge. Felines nap on carpet-covered scratching and climbing structures, custom built by Matthews-based Contempocat. A wide-screen TV showing videos of birds and squirrels entrances a pair of felines.
Boo, an easygoing, longhaired male cat, lounges in a sunny garden window, which juts out into a courtyard next door. He keeps a sleepy eye on an outdoor bird feeder. If any cat wants to escape briefly from human attention, an opening shaped like a cat's head leads to a private back room housing food dishes and litter boxes. Leicester credits the cat-friendly environment to Tamara, an interior designer with work experience in the architectural field.
"In an environment like this, people can see the cats' personalities quickly," Leicester says. "They really shine." It helps that the animals are peaceful and friendly, he adds.
Since the café opened, there have been no cat fights aside from a stray hiss or two. An inconspicuous wall diffuser that dispenses feliway, a synthetic version of the cat facial hormone, aids this serenity. It calms cats without sedating them, Leicester explains, and lets them know they're in a safe environment.
Everything about the café is designed with one purpose in mind, according to Leicester. "We help get adult cats adopted," he says. "Kittens can adopt themselves." Since opening in late April, the café has adopted out 15 cats. While Daily Mews gets its animals from a handful of rescue partners including AC&C, most of these cats come from the café's next-door neighbor, Monroe Road Animal Hospital.
Monroe has had its own adoption program for more than 30 years, says Chris Graham, the hospital's adoption coordinator, but since Daily Mews opened, it's been on the front line of the hospital's cat adoptions. In return, the hospital and its staff are on call for any health issues that may arise among the café's cat population.
"Clients or Good Samaritans find the majority of our cats," Graham says. The hospital vets the animals with a medical examination, then gets them spayed or neutered and microchipped, he explains.
"At the moment, we have 13 or 14 cats, including the ones we have over at the Daily Mews," Graham says. Daily Mews is licensed as a private shelter. It hosts foster cats in a commercial retail setting, but the majority of the cats technically belong to MRHA. The café charges a $45 adoption fee, which it passes on to rescue partners like the hospital.
If Daily Mews is a cozy cat bungalow, Mac Tabby is a funky feline club. Lori Konawalik, who opened Charlotte's first cat café in Area 15 on North Davidson Street last December, sits with me in the Mac Tabby lounge as Bitty Betty, a black and white tabby, paws hungrily at my lemon muffin. The vibe here is a bit more rock 'n' roll, a retrofitted industrial space with work by local artists hanging on the walls. Coffee and kombucha are the two main items served by the attached café. A carpet-covered support post and a whimsical cheese wall that cats can crawl through are the few concessions to "catification."
While the Leicesters have studied other cat cafés for pointers and inspiration, Konawalik has drawn on her instincts. When she briefly looked at other cat cafés, they seemed to her to be too cat-centered, with people added as an afterthought.
"I didn't like that, because I feel that cats are an accessory to lives which make our lives better," Konawalik says. "I felt the cafe should be human-centered with cats, because that's more real life. That's more my style. My cats in my house do not take over."
To that end, Mac Tabby hosts music nights, like a recent event featuring a set by local guitarist and songwriter John Sullivan. Cat yoga, an activity that is also on the schedule at Daily Mews, is a popular event. The café also offers supervised Kitty Time reservations for children under 7.
Like Daily Mews, Mac Tabby charges admission to the cat lounge — $12 for an hour and $6 for a half hour. Attendance in the lounge is capped at 15 people, and the number of cats in the room is set at 12 by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. With a total of 77 adoptions since December, a steady stream of cats has passed through the café.
Gretchen is not one of those success stories. The gray two-year-old is not as playful as some of the other Mac Tabby cats. Instead, she's a gazer, Konawalik says. "She'll gaze in your eyes like she loves you."
Gretchen's thoughtful demeanor may derive from having experienced two failed adoptions, one dating from before her time at Mac Tabby. Last month a couple took Gretchen home, but had to return her due to medical reasons, Konawalik says. If the cat is disappointed by this turn of events, she doesn't show it. Gretchen circles my book bag before settling down on it for a nap.
The majority of Mac Tabby cats have found homes, including a three-legged feline named Beowulf. He was only at the café a few days, Konawalik remembers, when a special needs teacher spotted him and knew she had found her cat. Like all the other cats at the café, Beowulf came through Konawalik's sole rescue partner, Catering to Cats and Dogs.
"I had a meeting with Lori a year before Mac Tabby opened," says CCD's Roseann Forbes. "We had a conversation about the future and found that our visions were aligned."
CCD pulls many of its animals from high-kill shelters, Forbes says. After the cats are updated on their vaccinations, spayed and neutered, microchipped and tested for feline AIDS and feline leukemia, they are ready for Mac Tabby. The cat café is technically a kennel that fosters the animals, which remain in the care of the rescue group. Mac Tabby's $125 adoption fee goes directly to CCD.
During Creative Loafing's trek on the Queen City kitty trail, a pattern emerges. As more neonate kittens survive, they move out to private homes either through AC&C's foster network or HSC's. They return to shelters and adoption centers healthy and socialized, and therefore easier to adopt. Though it's harder to find homes for adult cats, even the prognosis for them looks good. Nowadays, fewer cats are euthanized by AC&C and other municipal shelters because they're less likely to languish in those shelters. Those animals are on the move. Rescue groups are taking the cats from AC&C and other municipal shelters. Then the adult felines are fostered, so they, too, are healthy, socialized and more adoptable when they move on to adoption centers like HSC's Meow Town and Charlotte's cat cafés.
At the same time, the unwanted stray and feral populations are reduced by trap-neuter-release initiatives. Cats that once fell through the cracks — animals that are too socialized to be community cats but too feral to be pets — are now being placed in businesses by HSC's Working Cats program. It's a massive initiative, a cooperative, overlapping ecosystem ranging from government agencies down to the individual cat lover.
But why are so many people in the Charlotte area so invested in saving cats and finding them homes? After all, these are just animals. Why concern ourselves with caged cats when caged children are in the news?
That question can be answered at Mac Tabby, as Bitty Betty finally settles down and perches on my shoulder. "People may forget what you tell them but they never forgot how you make them feel," Konawalik says, citing customers who have told her that the feeling of peace and happiness they get from their visits to Mac Tabby can last for several days. Her observation brings the reason for the citywide effort to care and find home for cats into focus: Connecting to another species can also connect us to our humanity.
"People absolutely adore cats and have since ancient Egypt. They make us happy," Konawalik says. She opened her café because she felt she wasn't doing enough for her community. Konawalik was fostering cats out of her home, but wanted to do more for cats and the people who love cats. Given those goals, Konawalik says, if her café were to go under, she would not see it as a failure.
"Seventy-seven cats have been adopted. I taught my kids to not let things stop you if you really want to do something," Konawalik says. "We've had people come in here to be at peace with the cats. If we can affect cats' lives and people's lives in a positive way, how can you possibly go wrong with that?"
This story is dedicated to the memory of my cat Tinky, who died as I was working on this story. He touched the lives of my family, friends and neighbors in a positive way. He wasn't a rescue cat, but he may have rescued us.