Vickie Clarke-Ellis of Salem cuddles Neptune and Saturn, two of the 11-day old kittens she is fostering for the Willamette Valley Humane Society. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Vickie Clarke-Ellis gently lifted two 11-day-old kittens away from their nursing mother to examine the pair whose eyes had just started to open.

Clarke-Ellis and her husband, Jon, of west Salem, are helping reduce overcrowded conditions at the Willamette Humane Society shelter in Salem by providing a foster home to four kittens and their mother during this “kitten season.”

“Kitten season is definitely a trend that happens nationwide, and at this time of year we see between 500 and 700 unwanted kittens dropped off,” said Callie Gisler, communications manager at the shelter. “People come in with litters they have found with strays, with community cats, or they bring in cats that are pregnant.”

The season runs between March and October when temperatures warm up and unaltered cats go into heat. About 60 days after conception, moms deliver their kittens. A litter usually consists of four to eight babies.

“We’re always looking for foster families to help but now especially,” she said. “Currently, we have 200 to 300 volunteers but we need more. Lots of folks have stepped up to help with our urgent foster needs, which began with the COVID-19 virus.”

Shelter workers say this year they are particularly worried that they will receive even more than the usual number of kittens because Gov. Kate Brown decreed that spaying and neutering of cats is non-essential during the pandemic. They hope that the neutering ban is lifted by June.

Salem Friends of Felines also is preparing for an uptick in kittens surrendered, said Kristie Densmore, an intake specialist.

“We have a wonderful foster care program, but we can always use more help this time of year,” she said. “We’ve had as many as 70 cats and kittens, and we need to get help caring for them.”

To foster cats from that shelter, call 503-362-5611. The shelter is open only by appointment during the pandemic. Donations to help cover the shelter’s expenses can be sent to Salem Friends of Felines, 980 Commercial St. S.E., Salem, OR 97302.

Volunteers like Clarke-Ellis care for kittens for what can be long stretches of time and can involve bottle feeding every two hours, 24 hours a day. Clarke-Ellis said she doesn’t mind the demands on her time because what “I’m doing is heart-warming and rewarding, and I have an empathy for animals.

“We’ve been fostering for 20 years off and on,” she said. “I think that we’ve probably taken care of about 200 cats, mostly kittens.”

Her four tabby kittens named Neptune, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn and their mother Delilah will live with Clarke-Ellis for six weeks and then they will go to another foster home to learn to socialize with people.

Susan Fletcher of Salem also fosters kittens for the Humane Society. She’s waiting to hear when she can pick up her litter. Besides caring for kittens, Fletcher coachs other volunteers that have issues, concerns or questions about animal care.

She said she’s observed that most kittens and moms taken to shelters come from apartment buildings. Pet owners leave their unaltered cats behind when they move out, forcing other residents to step up and feed the cats. But when those cats get pregnant or have kittens, the animals end up in a shelter.

To learn more about fostering with the Humane Society, call the shelter at 503-585-5900. To help cover the cost of caring for animals at the shelter send donations to the Willamette Humane Society, 4246 Turner Road S.E., Salem, OR 97317. During the pandemic, the shelter is closed to visitors except by appointment.

Eleven-day-old Neptune and Saturn just opened their eyes while in foster care along with their brothers Mars and Jupiter and their mom Delilah. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

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