Local

Feline foster mom turns Raleigh kittens into social media stars — and helps them find homes

Nearly 40,000 followers track these Raleigh kittens’ shenanigans

Traci Highsmith, who fosters kittens for SAFE Haven of Raleigh, discusses turning to social media to bring attention to cats in need of homes
Up Next
Traci Highsmith, who fosters kittens for SAFE Haven of Raleigh, discusses turning to social media to bring attention to cats in need of homes

Equal parts chaos and fuzzy-belly-nuzzling zen.

That’s life in the kitten room in Traci Highsmith’s North Raleigh home most days, as foster kittens scurry about chasing jingle balls, crawling through gutted oatmeal canisters and collapsing into sleepy piles.

Highsmith has been fostering for SAFE Haven For Cats, a Raleigh nonprofit rescue, for almost four years. SAFE Haven has an adoption center that houses adoptable cats and kittens off Durant Road, but they use fosters such as Highsmith to help out with litters of kittens or even adult cats when the shelter is over capacity. Which is always. And especially now, during “kitten season,” a particularly high-volume period of feline reproduction from March through October, volunteers like Highsmith are especially valuable.

In addition to the usual foster duties of feeding, playing, weighing and scooping, Highsmith runs the Instagram account @RaleighKittens, where nearly 40,000 people follow the kitten shenanigans every day: meeting new litters, learning their unique personalities, getting attached, then saying goodbye as they head back to SAFE Haven to find forever homes.

Just when followers feel like their hearts will break as Axel, Flip, Loop and Lutz leave, new love blooms with Key Lime, Meyer Lemon and Tangelo.

Highsmith cares for the kittens, often with the mama cat in tow, until they are large enough to be spayed or neutered and put up for adoption. Then she returns the kittens to SAFE Haven, where they are altered at the group’s on-site clinic. Then she gets another batch.

RAL_FOSTERKITTENS6-NE-04031
Traci Highsmith, who has fostered more than 100 kittens for SAFE Haven of Raleigh for over three years, keeps photos of all the kittens she’s fostered over the years with many hanging on the wall in her kitten room. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Since there’s always another litter of kittens on the way, Highsmith says there’s no time for her to get overly attached.

“You get used to them coming and going,” Highsmith said, sitting on the floor of her kitten room Wednesday morning while tuxedo kittens Truffle and Ganache climbed into her lap and swatted at her fingers.

Highsmith got the idea of using social media to market her kittens after noticing the huge followings for accounts like @foster_kittens, @kittenxlady and @whiskersnpurrs. It makes perfect sense: use cute kitten videos to help spread the word about adoptable cats and kittens that need homes, and also about the need for fosters to help ease the burden on crowded shelters.

Patti Godin, the senior director at SAFE Haven, says the group currently has 33 cats and kittens in foster homes throughout the Triangle. “That means there are 33 places at the shelter for us to take in more,” Godin said.

The @RaleighKittens site has created more awareness about the rescue group and its mission, Godin said.

RAL_FOSTERKITTENS4-NE-04031
Nougat, one of four kittens currently fostered by Traci Highsmith, curls into her lap with a littermate on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Highsmith uses an Instagram account with nearly 40,000 followers to raise awareness about pet adoption. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

“Traci’s fun and creative approach to fostering — with adorable pictures and video of kittens posted daily — has provided the organization with a much higher level of brand awareness.”

Godin said one of Highsmith’s foster kittens, Blue Spruce, was on the adoption floor less than 48 hours before going to his new home. People were asking about him for weeks before SAFE Haven even got him back.

“Shelters like SAFE Haven need social media influencers like Traci,” Godin said. “Even if her @RaleighKittens follower doesn’t adopt one of her foster kittens, they have visited our website, maybe stopped by and toured our shelter, and perhaps fell in love with another shelter cat who may have not been adopted so quickly.”

All rescue groups need fosters

Nearly all local rescue groups use fosters these days. Some groups are entirely foster-based, while even traditional shelter-type systems, like Wake County Animal Center and the SPCA of Wake County, use fosters to fill the gaps.

Many rescue groups, including SAFE Haven, pay for all of the food, litter and medical needs of animals while they’re being fostered, so the biggest cost to the volunteer doing the fostering is a little of their time. But not all rescues are able to do that.

“What I’m realizing is that every fostering situation is different,” Highsmith said. “With SAFE Haven, they have the vet and the clinic right there on site, so I don’t make medical decisions for them. There are other fosters out there who have to do that, to literally make life and death decisions sometimes and pay the medical bills, but SAFE Haven covers all that.”

RAL_FOSTERKITTENS5-NE-04031
Traci Highsmith, who fosters kittens for SAFE Haven of Raleigh, pets her latest foster kittens at her Raleigh home on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Highsmith uses an Instagram account with nearly 40,000 followers to raise awareness about pet adoption. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Highsmith has fostered more than 100 kittens and hasn’t lost one, but had a close call last year with two tiny tabbies. Loop came down with a severe case of pneumonia, so she went back to SAFE Haven, along with Lutz, who was also showing signs of sickness.

“From there Loop went on to a specialist and was in an incubator for a week,” Highsmith said. “It was really touch and go, but they made it through.”

Highsmith works from home — from the kitten room, in fact — where she can give the kittens the extra attention they need (though she emphasizes that working from home isn’t a requirement for fostering).

RAL_FOSTERKITTENS-NE-040319
Traci Highsmith, who fosters kittens for SAFE Haven of Raleigh, holds her latest litter of foster kittens at her Raleigh home on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Highsmith uses an Instagram account with nearly 40,000 followers to raise awareness about pet adoption. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

She has two cats of her own, 15-year-old litter mates who do not particularly care for the kittens, but it’s a benign indifference. When the kittens are older and get some supervised time outside the kitten room, Highsmith says they follow her male cat Burt around, wide eyes full of hero worship. The girl, Doozer, prefers to avoid the kittens altogether.

Highsmith, a web programmer, is accustomed to carrying on with her work while kittens play or sleep nearby. Her tall standing desk keeps the tiny explorers from being too disruptive, and she has worked out methods to keep them quiet while on conference calls. (Pro tip: talk to them all day so that when they hear you suddenly start talking in your meeting, they don’t go nuts).

Scattered about the room — which features an old-fashioned screen door so that the kittens are never too shut off from the rest of the house — are toys, blankets, scratching posts and IKEA doll beds that double as bunk beds. Some of the cat beds, like the small tents and tiny beach-style sling chairs, are made by Highsmith and her husband for their Purring Saw side business. Tucked away in alternating corners are food bowls and litter boxes. And there are Highsmith’s two school-age sons, in and out to offer some head scratches.

It’s kitten heaven, basically, for felines and the humans who love them. And it’s a little lonely in there when Highsmith doesn’t have kittens, which, for better or worse, isn’t too often.

“I have this room,” Highsmith said. “I always want it filled with kittens.”

If you want to adopt

There’s no shortage of rescue groups and animals shelters in need of good adopters, and there’s no way we can list them all here. But if you’re into cats, start with SAFE Haven for Cats (safehavenforcats.org) or Alley Cats & Angels (facebook.com/AlleyCatsandAngels).

If you’re interested only in dogs, try Saving Grace (savinggracenc.org).

And remember the larger groups such as Wake County Animal Center (wakegov.com/pets), the SPCA of Wake County (spcawake.org), Second Chance Pet Adoption (secondchancenc.org) and Independent Animal Rescue (animalrescue.net) in Durham. All of these groups are also active on Facebook. And don’t forget the power of Google.

If you want to foster

Contact your favorite rescue group or start with the list above. Tell them you’re interested in fostering and ask about the requirements and what the group provides as far as food and care for the pets you’ll take.

Tucker is a 20-year-old half-Mane coon cat who ballooned up to 31 pounds through downtown apartment living. Now he qualifies as a Raleigh celebrity.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Brooke Cain is a North Carolina native who has worked at The News & Observer for more than 20 years. She writes about TV and local media for the Happiness is a Warm TV blog, and also covers local retail.


  Comments