Let's assume for a moment that you found this kitten in a residential part of your city or town. She's resting with her two brothers, and the mom doesn't appear nearby. What should you do?
If your instinct is to pack up all of those kittens and whisk them into a shelter, you're not alone. It happens a lot. And often, that's a perfectly wonderful step that saves a kitten's life.
But often, it's a tragic mistake that results in a loss of life. And even if the kittens survive, they could struggle with things they wouldn't struggle with had their mothers stayed with them as they grew.
Consider Kathleen here. Is is the photo I took of her on the day she came to my house for the first time. She's plump, fluffy and sleepy. Clearly, her mother has been feeding her, grooming her and keeping her warm.
Here she is about 2 weeks later, after eating with me. I'm a poor cat momma substitute.
She's got food all over her fur, and while she's bigger, she's not nearly as fluffy. To keep her tidy, I had to use a washcloth. It makes her a whole lot wetter than a momma cat tongue would. And wet kittens can quickly become sick kittens, if they catch a chill from the cool air around them. So after eating and bathing, Kathleen had to spend a lot of time like this.
She's packed tight inside of a towel, which I'm holding on my lap. She's warm enough, but I'm sure this isn't nearly as comforting as being licked and cuddled by a mother. It's a poor substitute. And when Kathleen was this size, she needed this food and towel help multiple times each day.
And let's talk about that food for a moment. The nutrition Kathleen ate during this time was man-made, and it included canned food and canned cat milk replacer. It was sufficient, but it didn't contain antibodies or other immune-boosting substances. That could mean Kathleen won't have added protection against common health problems.
And in the shelter system, those health problems could be incredibly present. Each time I took her back for a checkup, I was exposing her to things that could make her sick. With her mom, she might not face those risks at all.
Kathleen and her brothers were rescued from a spot that (more than likely) the mom cat was planning to return to when her hunting was done. These kittens probably didn't need to be rescued. They needed their mothers. With my help, they all survived. But I can't help but wonder if they might have been just a touch better off with their mom.
So, what's the best way to help kittens to stay where they belong, without putting their longterm health at risk? It involves observation.
The New York Feral Cat Coalition says that kittens are at high risk of hypothermia in the winter, but clearly that's not always a problem in the summer. That means you have time to wait. Use it. Look for a space in which you can safely observe those kittens, and wait for momma to come back. If she doesn't come back and those kittens are in grave danger, only then should you remove them.
Yes, it's hard to watch and wait. But just think of all the risks you'll be preventing. Your kittens are safer with their mothers. Let them stay.
If you really want to help, mark your calendar and set traps when those kittens should hit the 8-week mark. Pop them in to be spayed or neutered, so they don't contribute to the overpopulation problem. You might even be able to get them adopted.
But please. Don't rush to help all the kittens you see right now, right away. They might need their mothers more than they need you.