There they were, felines clinging to life, Laney, Quirky, Koko, all babies without Mama in sight, scooped into the palm of human hands to be soothed, stroked and fed around the clock.
"Not everyone understands how hard it is for newborn kittens. They have to eat every two to three hours. We weigh them before and after. We make sure the conditions are just right for their nurturing," says Kara Odenbaugh, pointing to the heating pads tucked under the critters' blankets and stuffed animals – simulating Mom – adorning each kitten's crib.
Odenbaugh, who oversees the kitten nursery at Best Friends Pet Adoption Center in Mission Hills, cradled one kitten weighing 177 grams, barely one-third of a pound. Laney, the size of a Twinkie, sported gray fur reminiscent of a soft sweater and struggled to keep her eyes open while sucking on bottled formula. At almost 2 weeks old, she and seven siblings would have no chance of staying alive without the workers' vigilance.
Inside the spotless neonatal unit, these kittens are survivors of a larger battle being waged in the No-Kill Los Angeles movement. Led by Best Friends Animal Society and partnering with local shelters, it is a passionate coalition of animal welfare groups seeking to transform L.A. into a city where, by year's end, no homeless pet has to die.
"We are absolutely committed to changing the landscape, to educate and inspire the public and to create chances for each animal," says Marc Peralta, executive director of Best Friends in Los Angeles. That mission involves organizing countless spay and neuter clinics so that fewer animals end up in shelters, while increasing adoptions so that more animals find homes.
At the nursery, preparation begins in the wee hours with what NKLA supporters call the "most vulnerable" of their charges, newborn kittens, yawning through their feedings.
"We think of kittens as adorable and so easy to adopt. But the newborn requires 24-hour care, and they're most likely to be put to sleep since they demand huge resources," Peralta adds. "If it weren't for this nursery – if it weren't for our incredible partnerships with so many groups across this vast city – we would never be able to save these babies or achieve our goal."
Achieving the "no kill" goal by year's end would make Los Angeles the nation's largest no-kill city and a model for other cities.
In 2012, the year NKLA launched, only 57.7 percent of cats and dogs left city shelters alive, with 18,000 cats and dogs euthanized. By 2016, the number of euthanized pets dropped to 3,236, an 82 percent reduction.
NKLA reported an 86 percent save rate through July 2017. (Reaching 100 percent is impractical, as some animals must be euthanized in part because of incurable illnesses.)
"It's incredible that the goal is in sight," says Brenda Barnette, general manager for Los Angeles Animal Services, which operates six city shelters but lacked funding in its nearly $23-million budget for a seventh location in Mission Hills – until Best Friends stepped in with its resources.
Best Friends "has been an amazing, amazing partner," Barnette said. "We simply focus on the work, and they really stress customer service, planning and more planning. They are so strategic."
All of the animals in Mission Hills, nestled in the San Fernando Valley, come from the city's other shelters, freeing space for other rescues.
The nursery is one example of how the partnership between activists and the city are making a difference. Angel City Pit Bulls is another, with the nonprofit committed to "forming a village to care for this beautiful breed," founder Katie Larkin says.
Larkin lauds NKLA's "tremendous achievement, but it doesn't stop there. We need to push toward 92 ( percent animals saved), then 94 ... ."
Being a part of the NKLA coalition gave Angel City access to spay and neuter grants totaling nearly $50,000, which translated into helping 600 pit bulls and pit bull mixes get fixed, especially in areas like South L.A. and Van Nuys, where large breeds and pit bulls are commonly found, according to Larkin. Her group saved 97 dogs in 2016, compared with 126 dogs already saved by mid-2017, thanks to NKLA and outreach on social media, she said.
"Do you know how thrilling it is for animals to have an opportunity to finally go into homes?" Larkin said.
Back at the kitten nursery, Laney, done with her bottle, curled up near her siblings Lukas, Little Bill, Layla, Leaf, Lev, Lupita and Little Betty. Littermates are assigned names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet for organizational purposes.
It takes a staff of nine, along with 222 active volunteers, to monitor the unit's purring population, all under 2 months old.
"They are so dear," Odenbaugh says. A bulletin board behind her shows the team aiming to save 3,000 newborns in 2017. Once they're weaned and healthy, they're placed in foster or adoptive homes.
"What the public has to remember is we can't care for orphans alone," she said, making a plea: "Help us lend a hand."
HOW TO HELP
Animal rescue supporters say your energy and activism at the grass-roots level can help close the gap as L.A. works toward achieving no-kill status at its city shelters. "Some people say they don't have enough time or money to participate. But really, $5 or five hours a month makes a huge difference," says Marc Peralta, executive director for Best Friends Animal Society-Los Angeles. "If 1,000 people give $5 a month, imagine what that could do." Here's how you and your kids can get involved:
– Spread news on social media. It can be as simple as scrolling through the website or Facebook pages of your local animal shelter or rescue group, and highlighting critters up for adoption on your own Facebook wall or via your Twitter or Instagram feeds. For the holidays, you can call attention to the group's wish list, boosting donations of beds, blankets, winter gear or cleaning supplies.
– When hosting family celebrations, share the cheer by requesting charitable donations instead of gifts. A child might set up a collection box at his or her party for toys, dry food, treats or leashes. After the gathering, youngsters can pack up donations and deliver them to a shelter, learning more about how it operates.
– Bring your Girl Scout or Boy Scout troop to local shelters. And before your field trip, collect donations and view online tutorials showing how to turn your old T-shirts into tug toys. Earn a service patch for your work.
– Volunteer at your local shelter, and find out what kind of help it needs. Perhaps you can walk or exercise rescue dogs or help socialize cats. Children can also practice their skills "reading" to shelter dogs: Many encourage it as a way to socialize animals, promote the human-pet bond and help children brush up on their reading skills.
– Donate your airline miles to rescue groups. They can use them to send members or volunteers to animal- welfare conferences.
– Choose your favorite animal charity on smile.amazon.com, and a portion of your purchases will be donated to that group. If you shop at Ralphs, register your rewards card online at Ralphs.com, and the animal welfare charity of your choice will earn community funds. Then, nudge your family and friends to do the same.
– Get your pets fixed. Free spay and neuter vouchers and discount coupons are available at L.A. city animal shelters. Each household is eligible for discounts for three dogs and three cats. Go to LAAnimalServices.com for details.
– Always remember: Adopt, don't shop. If you have your heart set on welcoming a family member of a specific breed, there's an animal rescue group that specializes in it. Search online.