The Day the Kitten Portal Opened Up

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
These were some of the first kittens to appear in Mike Shirley-Donnelly's backyard. What the humans didn't know was how many would follow. @curiousquail/Instagram

During an Easter egg hunt in Mike Shirley-Donnelly's backyard in March 2016, someone found what they thought was an opossum. On closer inspection, the fluff ball turned out to be a pile of 5-day-old kittens.

That's the day the kitten portal opened up.

"Our backyard had a lot of overgrown oleander bushes and we were planning on doing some landscaping to tame them a bit, but they became ground zero for kittens," Shirley-Donnelly tells MNN in an email interview. He's the founder, singer, songwriter and guitarist for a group called Curious Quail that, at the time, was based in San Jose, California.

Over the next year, Shirley-Donnelly and his wife worked to capture, fix and find homes for five litters of kittens (and various adult cats) that mysteriously appeared in their yard.

"First instinct was to call a friend who is a vet tech because my wife Delicaye is incredibly allergic to cats ... so we 'knew' we couldn't take them in," Shirley-Donnelly says. "Our friend Liz is amazing and explained that newborn kittens don't generally produce the dander that causes most cat allergies until after they've weaned and learn to wash themselves, i.e. we had a window to take them in and find homes for them."

And in the nick of time. Only a few months before the kittens had arrived, the couple had noticed coyote droppings in their yard.

"Our house was located about a block off of an uninhabited hill network/county park full of coyotes, opossums, raccoons, bobcats, etcetera, so we knew we had to get them inside because they'd either be eaten or end up overpopulating," Shirley-Donnelly says.

Becoming kitten experts

He had always had cats in his house when growing up, but Shirley-Donnelly says he had little to nothing to do with their care. That changed overnight as he became a kitten caretaker. There was an awful lot of bottle feeding to do.

"The only time in my life I didn't live with cats was when Delicaye and I got married," he says. "We both love cats but her allergies meant we had to keep them at arm's length, and we're both kinda through the moon that this all worked out because CATS ARE SO GOOD."

The first batch of five — dubbed the Kitters — were about a month old when they found the sixth kitten. He was part of another litter from which only three survived; they eventually caught all three.

"We'd named him Jon Snow after the "Song of Ice and Fire"/"Game of Thrones" character since he was the sixth kid in the group and had different parents," Shirley-Donnelly explains. "His sister Bison (a tortie) was found in the woodpile outside about a week or so after him. The last sibling (Lilith, a calico) unfortunately escaped as a kitten and lived in the wild for about a year before we finally caught her. Around the time she got settled, we were able to adopt out one from the first litter, so we stabilized for a time with six kittens."

Documenting the experience

Because Shirley-Donnelly is also a photographer and his wife is a photographer, visual artist and writer, they began chronicling their kitten escapades on social media.

And the cats kept arriving.

"I mean, by litter two we were amazed that we'd gone from zero to seven kittens so fast," Shirley-Donnelly says. "The next litter showing up was met with a resounding 'YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING.' We did realize at one point that we were the only people on our stretch of street who didn't have a dog, so the theory was the other yards were considered unsafe and ours was, 'Hey mama, drop your babies here cuz those big stupid furless giants will take them in and feed them for you.' "

Fortunately, as word spread in the feline network, it also spread among humans. The couple has friends interested in taking home kittens and, as their personal social media pages became filled with all things cats, their inboxes also filled with requests to adopt their new furry friends.

But their home remained a constant flurry of feline activity and litter boxes as kittens kept arriving. At one point they had as many as 21 cats at one time.

To get to the root of the problem, they realized it wasn't enough to just take care of the kittens. They had to also track down the parents.

"We'd initially borrowed a Havahart safe trap from a local pet store to catch the first mom but after litter two, we knew there were more moms out there and invested in our own. We'd put some wet food in it, leave it out back (or out front) and sure enough, they'd come for it. We became regulars at our local Trap/Neuter /Release shelter."

With a little sleuthing and the help of a neighbor, they figured that all these kittens came from just two female cats that had been abandoned on their street and had hooked up with a series of feral males.

Almost exactly a year later, the kitten portal closed. The couple had apparently trapped and neutered the adults that had been parenting all those kittens, and many of the kittens had found homes. But not all. Several stayed with them as they relocated to a new home in Palm Springs, California.

They relocated to be able to have a home studio ... and a bigger home for the cats. The new place does not appear to have a kitten portal — at least not yet.