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Volunteer of the Month: Kati DeGraaf

Longtime RAPS member the go-to for foster moms and kittens

It was New Year’s Eve a few years back when a mama cat went into a difficult delivery. Kati DeGraaf, RAPS’ most prolific fosterer of mamas and kittens, was with Comet when she delivered the first kitten but then developed problems. She raced to the veterinarian, where two more kittens were delivered by C-section.

At midnight, Kati and the vet wished each other a Happy New Year and Kati brought Comet and the two newborns back to her home. The mama had no issues with the first born, but she would have nothing to do with the two who were delivered by the vet.

While unusual, this sort of behavior is not at all unknown – especially to experts like Kati. This year alone she has fostered seven litters who were either born at her house or arrived shortly after birth. She has been volunteering with RAPS for more than a dozen years and is the go-to person for problem pregnancies and newborns who need special attention. Bottle-feeding is a specialty of Kati’s as it is a very specific skill with newborn kittens.

“You need to be able to know all aspects of the little babies’ insides,” she says. “You have to have a lot of patience, especially if they are young, because you’re doing this every hour-and-a-half to two hours and they don’t always learn to suck right off the bat. You have to stimulate them. They can aspirate and you have to hold them at certain angles for feeding as well – and know what to do if they aspirate.” She also brushes them with toothbrushes to teach them to groom themselves, as their mothers would do.

Kati has a lifetime of experience working with vets and in kennels in Ontario and she was a devoted student of biology.

“I love to see the creation of life,” she says.

Sadly, there are also heartbreaks associated with this sort of work. Just days ago, Kati sent a litter of five kittens back to the Shelter, having raised them almost from the start. They arrived at Kati’s house with their mama before their eyes opened and all were healthy, although the mom was undernourished and very skinny. Still, all seemed well. On Sunday night, the mom was eating and playing normally. But on Monday, she began throwing up and on Tuesday she was critical. The RAPS Animal Hospital did exploratory surgery but the mother died hours later. Kati hand-fed the five babies who are all healthy and preparing for adoption to forever homes.

The conundrum of loving and caring for animals is the grief we feel when we lose one of them. It’s something Kati has to deal with too frequently.

“After I cry for a couple of hours, I go through a mental checklist of whether there was anything I did that could have caused it to die,” she says. “Was there anything I could have done more to save it? Generally, then, I come back to: it’s nature. Nature only keeps the strong.”

There are also the unexpected miracles. Recently, Kati discovered a kitten lying motionless and cold.

“Her heart was beating, but that was it,” she says. “I spent probably close to five hours that day with various things suctioning out in case she had dry food stuck in her throat, giving her mouth-to-mouth, warming her up.”

Whether the near-death experience had some sort of empowering force on the kitten or it’s just a personality trait, that one turned out to be the hellion of the litter.

“She ended up being the feistiest of the five,” Kati recalls, laughing. “She was a little terror.”

Her work with RAPS saving and caring for kittens and their moms is a big part of Kati’s life.

“I’ve always found RAPS to be a very good organization,” she says. “They certainly care for their animals. They care where their animals go. When they’re up for adoption, it’s a very rigorous screening that they do. They’re not just pushing them out the door. They really care. It makes me feel good to be with an association that does actually care about the animals. If they have to spend four or five hundred dollars on a kitten or a cat for surgery, they’re going to do it. They’re not going to just say we can save that money and euthanize it. They’ll go as far as they possibly can to save an animal. They do a lot of good work.”

With all her experience, you might think it would become old hat but Kati sometimes finds it astonishing to be in the midst of a delivery.

“If somebody had told me, in my 20s, that at 61 I’d be sitting on a table with my feet on a chair leaning into a cage with a cat in labour, with her head in my hand and every time I’d move my hand to adjust my position she would gently pull it back with her paw …” she trails off. “I spent, I think, a total of five hours in there like that.”

In the end, that cat, Trixie, delivered a single baby: Urielle. That’s Urielle and Kati in the photo.

On behalf of the humans of RAPS – but especially on behalf of the countless kittens you have helped to deliver and nurture – THANK YOU KATI!

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