Cat lovers Halie Waid and Hillary Saunders have a houseful of down-on-their-luck cats and kittens.
Every two hours, they enter their designated “kitten room” to bottle-feed newborns who are without a mother.
“We call them the world’s most vulnerable felines,” Saunders said.
She and Waid operate Kind Kitty Rescue, a neonatal kitten rescue in Alachua County that cares for newborn kittens in need of specialized care.
Under the guidance of a licensed veterinarian, they incubate, tube feed, bottle feed and give treatments to neonate kittens.
They started their rescue in Hampton, Virginia, two years ago, after a lady knocked on their door needing help trapping a litter of kittens living underneath her barn.
“We were down for the adventure,” Waid said.
After lifting the barn floor and successfully trapping the litter, Waid and Saunders brought the kittens into their home and spent the rest of the week nursing them to health. They both ended up loving the experience, which led them to consider the possibility of rehabilitating cats full time.
“We had the extra money, we had the space, and we had the time,” said Waid, “so why not?”
Their rescue, which was called Finish Line Farm at the time, took off immediately. They were able to house up to 56 kittens at a time and performed 188 rescues since opening in 2021.
They originally took in cats and neonatal kittens, but after making the move from Virginia to Florida in November so Waid could attend graduate school at the University of Florida, they decided to downsize to just neonates.
When she’s not taking care of newborns back at home, Waid works full time as a microbiologist. Saunders stays home but said she wants to get her license as a veterinary technician in the future. It was necessary to make their circumstances more manageable since Saunders was going to be the only one available 24/7.
Their most recent rescue was a 4-week-old kitten that was abandoned by its mother at an apartment complex in Ocala.
Rescuers posted the kitten’s story in an urgent kitten care Facebook group that both Waid and Saunders frequented.
One of their rescue friends from Florida, Arielle Rivera, was also in that group. She lives in Ocala and was able to take the kitten in as a foster.
Lilo, the name Rivera ended up choosing for the kitten, came to her small and malnourished after being without a mother to feed and draw warmth from.
Rivera and her husband were not able to spend much time with Lilo before they had to take an overnight trip. So after weighing her options, Rivera immediately reached out to Waid and Saunders.
It was supposed to be a one-night favor, but Lilo’s stay lasted five days because of a family matter. Something Rivera noticed about Waid and Saunder’s setup was how sterile everything was, which she says is vital when caring for multiple kittens.
“Not one time when they had him was I scared or nervous,” said Rivera.
Lilo returned to Ocala with Rivera on Feb. 25 and has been on the move constantly since then despite struggling a bit to control her back legs.
There are many rescues like Kind Kitty Rescue that have closed in the last year due to financial troubles, Rivera said. She said she hopes her friends’ rescue will thrive.
“These rescues are so vitally important to the community,” Rivera said. “And sometimes we don’t realize how important they are until they’re being taken away.”
During the warmer seasons, many shelters are unable to handle the influx of kittens. That’s why the community needs rescues that can take them in and provide specialized care.
Dr. Julie Levy, the founder of a cat rescue clinic called Operation Catnip, said that a lot of the kittens brought into their clinic suffer from sickness or trauma, which results in low mortality rates.
“That’s nature. She’s pretty harsh,” Levy said.
The clinic’s way of remediating this and the issue of overpopulation in shelters is by spaying and neutering as many cats as possible. Their TNR program, which stands for “trap, neuter and return,” takes in community cats and kittens, gets them fixed and returns them back to where they were originally found.
Waid and Saunders also started doing their own TNR at Kind Kitty Rescue, agreeing with most shelters that getting cats spayed and neutered is the best way to help the community cats.
But for those kittens that are born, Waid and Saunders said they wanted to make sure they have the best chance of survival.
“We’ve been through it all,” said Waid. Waid and Saunders have crawled through drainpipes, gone through the woods at night and lifted barn floors just to find kittens. But even if they do everything perfectly, Waid said they still won’t be able to save them all.
“We get attached to every single kitten that comes through here,” Saunders added.
Not all the kittens make it out of their home, but for those that are born with that fate, the best thing they suggest people do is “give them the best minutes or hours of love that you can,” said Saunders.
In their single-story house in the green farmland of Alachua County, Waid and Saunders have nine cats: Shanks and Juniper, who were adopted prior to their rescue, and Gracie, Harley, Peebs, Mawmaw, Bug, Vinny and Miasey, who were all kept from their rescue.
People at the grocery store in Virginia used to identify them as the “cat ladies,” said Saunders, but they didn’t mind the label. Not one bit.