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Waves of Kindness

One kind action is a pebble dropped into the ocean of time: its ripples extend far out beyond the horizon and can reach an untold number of shores. No matter how small a kindness is—just a word or smile—it can heal, it can transform, and it can continue to carry on from one person to another, one moment to the next.

While those stories embolden us to do that one kind thing, we must also realize that the same is true of one poor decision, one negligible inaction or unkind moment. Just one decision, and the ripples begin their journey across the seas.

Consider the pebble dropped that landed me here in April of 2012: on the side of Skyline Blvd, a two lane highway running along the San Andreas fault outside of San Francisco. It winds through the redwood forest that stands between the bay and the ocean. It is a scenic highway, but the scene before me was anything but beautiful.

Only a few inches from the white line, a grey and white kitten no bigger than my hand lay on his back, eyes closed, his head cocked in a severe angle, his mouth slightly open, and his little legs flat against his tummy. The kitten’s cry that had brought me to this place broke the silence once more. I quickly surveyed the scene searching for its source.

A few yards away from the kitten I suspected dead, a dark grey and black kitten was trying to climb up from the foliage-filled ditch that was the border between pavement and forest.  Her eyes were closed, but her mouth was open wide, letting out a desperate call for help.

To my left, a yard up the street, another kitten crawled about, quietly crying, searching for her sister. And to my right, a grey kitten slowly explored the forest floor on the edge of the road.

I had just wanted to go for a hike. That’s all—just a walk in the woods on my final day after seven months of living here. I was to leave for Los Angeles the next morning. But I couldn’t just walk away. These weren’t kittens that a feral mama cat had left under a bush while she went off hunting. Taking in the scene in its entirety one thing played in my mind: someone threw these kittens out a car window.

The cry came again and I was shaken out of my shock.

“I hear you; I’m here,” I called out to the alarm-ringer.

I was a mile and a half away from my truck. There was no cell service. I had to act quickly—kittens need to be fed frequently and I had no way of knowing when the last time they ate was. And then there was the one who needed urgent medical attention.

I scooped up the moving kittens and placed them into a make-shift hammock I made out of my jacket. I knew I was risking further injury to the kitten I had seen first, but there was no other choice. He was still alive, and I would not leave him here to die alone in the woods. I carefully lifted him off the pavement and placed him in with his siblings.

Trying to be careful, but realizing my footfalls were no luxury car ride, I swiftly hiked back to my cabin. When I walked down the dirt driveway, my landlord who was working in the garage saw my charges and moved into action. He dumped out some unidentifiable metal items from a cardboard box and held it out so I could lay my jacket inside it. He plugged in a heat lamp and held it over the kittens while I got my wallet and looked up the address of the nearest shelter. It was a thirty minute car ride down the mountain.

Arriving shortly after 4pm on a Saturday, I was suddenly painfully aware of the position I was in. I stood outside the doors of an animal shelter, box of kittens in my arms, asking for help. I was part of the problem, not the solution.

The shelter worker inside was brutally honest: there were no volunteers to bottle-feed. If I surrendered these kittens, they would be taken to the back and promptly euthanized. Kittens that young do not have the strong immune system needed to stay healthy in a shelter filled with animals. And the shelter simply did not have the resources to attend to them. I do not begrudge the shelter worker’s attitude toward me; it would be by her hand that these kittens would be put to death.  

I asked for a bottle-feed kit so I could do it myself. I wasn’t going to let these kittens die. The shelter worker found one in the back, and then gave it me along with written instructions.  I walked back out with my box of kittens, stubbornly determined to keep these cats alive.

Back at the truck, I got in, looked at the sleeping pile of furry grey in the box on the passenger seat, and sobbed into my steering wheel. How could I save them? How long did they have? I had no internet on my phone as I do now. I called a friend who searched the internet at home looking for a rescue to help. I jotted down numbers and started calling. One kind rescue told me they could only pull from shelters, not take from individuals. But they suggested I call the San Francisco SPCA even though I had found the kittens outside their jurisdiction.

A call to them provided a brief ray of hope. They required an appointment for to surrender an animal, but as an emergency situation (I just found a pile of day old kittens on the side of the road and I’m leaving for Los Angeles in sixteen hours), they may, possibly, perhaps, be able to help—if I could get there by closing time in one hour.

I hit the highway and headed into the city as quickly as I could. My truck came to a screeching halt in the parking lot and I jumped out of the truck. For the second time in a day, I stood before the doors of an animal shelter holding a cardboard box of kittens.

They had been expecting me and seeing the desperation in my face of dried tears, they immediately ushered me upstairs to the vet clinic.

Within moments, I was led into an exam room. Seconds later, Laura, a young vet tech with a natural smile and ease about her that made me relax introduced herself. “So what do we have here?”

I told her the story as she picked up each kitten and examined him or her. As for the little one I worried most about, she agreed. She called in the veterinarian who took him out to examine him while Laura started bottle-feeding the others.

The vet assessed him: the way his head moved, his inability to get his legs beneath him—something was clearly wrong. We all knew it.

“Do you think it’s genetic or a trauma?” I asked.

The vet looked at Laura. “He’s hurt himself,” she said simply and yet I felt like there was much more she wasn’t saying. Perhaps I had made things worse by picking him up. She ran her finger along his spine and as she reached the middle, he moaned.

“Yeah, he’s not…” she shook her head. “I think it’s in his best interest… what is most humane is to let him go.”

I nodded and sighed, trying to remain strong. “I agree with you. He shouldn’t be in pain.”

“Okay. I can do it right now,” she said and then stepped back a moment so I could say goodbye.

I leaned in to the little guy and whispered, “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. I’m so sorry.”

The tears began for the first time since I had arrived here in this caring place, but I was at peace with the decision. He couldn’t suckle. He barely moved. He wouldn’t thrive. He would die of starvation. It was best that he went peacefully.

The veterinarian picked him up gently and kindly, cradling him in her hands as she took him into the back. I wiped a final tear and tried to focus on the three I could still help. I asked Laura if she could show me how to bottle-feed.

“What? No. You’re leaving for LA tomorrow. How are you going to do that? We’ll take them.”

“But will they be euthanized?”

Despite all I had experienced here, I was still suspicious—what if this was a front and they still killed them anyway?

“As long as they stay healthy and keep weaning, No. In four weeks we can test them for various things to make sure they don’t have any sort of fatal diseases, but for now they’re safe. I’ll find a foster for them, but tonight they’ll come home with me. I’m bottle-feeding another one, so what’s three more?” she said with a shrug and a smile. Every two to three hours she would stop whatever she was doing (including sleeping) to feed not just one, but four kittens.

The kittens were safe, but I couldn’t just walk away. I was invested. I needed to do more (besides give a donation for the services and kindness I had experienced here.) Laura assured me I had done everything I could, so I asked to stay in touch. Maybe I could network and get the kittens a home when they came of age.

The next day Laura emailed me to say the three kittens had survived the night and were doing well. She passed the charges along to her friend Amber Holly who runs Saving Grace Rescue, a cat and kitten rescue specializing in bottle-fed kittens and special needs’ cats. She would foster them at her house, feed them, and find them homes.

After getting back to Los Angeles, I contacted Amber in order to keep up with their growing up. It wasn’t really over for me until they were with their forever families.

Only a few weeks after arrival, the little grey kitten stopped developing and was no longer thriving. Amber had to make the tough decision to put her to sleep. It was most likely a congenital defect and nothing could be done for her. Christened Linus and Sky, the two remaining siblings continued growing up in Amber’s rescue. In early June, Linus went to his forever home. A few days later Sky started her new life with her own forever family. It was a long way from the side of the road in the redwood forest but they had made it.

So I suppose you could say the ripples of one kind action ended up on two beautiful shores. Or, look more closely and see that the waves didn’t begin when I went for a hike that April day. They began months earlier: when one person decided they just didn’t really need to spay their outdoor cat. It started perhaps years earlier, when one person felt their unaltered male cat didn’t need to be neutered. Two choices of inaction were sent into the ocean of time. From those two pebbles dropped….

My last day in the bay area wasn’t spent in the woods, but spent on a desperate, frantic search to help those kittens. I had to walk into a shelter to the cold reality of what would happen if I left them here; a shelter worker was once again reminded of the grim task she was forced to do far too often. Various rescues received sobbing voicemails from me, asking for help. The San Francisco SPCA had to use their resources to take us in. A veterinarian was faced with not being able to save a kitten, and for mercy’s sake led him into the light. A young vet tech spent the night waking up every two hours to feed four kittens and tend to their needs. The next day the kittens had be driven by someone to their new foster home with Saving Grace Rescue. There, the difficult decision was made that another of the original four would not make it, and had to be put to sleep. The remaining two were cared for with donated supplies and love, fed and played with, and sent to the vet for vaccinations and to be spayed and neutered. Meanwhile adoption applications came in and were read, home visits were performed, and decisions made to what the rest of their lives would hold.

One inaction impacted over half a dozen individuals—and that’s just directly within 24 hours. Sleepless nights, tears shed: all of this could have been avoided by one simple thing: spay & neuter. Imagine that cat had been spayed. Or that wandering tomcat had been neutered. When you consider whether or not to spay or neuter your own pets, think about the number of pebbles that have to be dropped into the ocean to divert the ripples from your own one single pebble; how many individuals have to spring into action to make up for one inaction.

The thing about rescue is we love what we do; but we don’t love the reason we need to do it. It’s an endeavor done in the hopes of one day never having to do it again. And that hope begins with you: with one action. One small thing. Spay or neuter your cat. It’s not just about cats; it’s about the humans you effect by not doing so: the trauma they suffer making life and death decisions that no one should be forced to make; the resources used and donated or paid for by taxpayers to care for the homeless kittens; the time spent agonizing over those who can’t be helped and striving to help those who have a fighting chance. You are significant; your decisions matter—to all of us. By choosing to #AlterTheFuture, you’re choosing to drop your pebble into the sea along with countless others, and together we will create great waves of kindness.