NEW YORK — When you’re a kitten, there’s a lot to learn. In a room lined with cages on the Upper East Side of Manhattan one recent afternoon, Imando was getting a lesson in eating solid food.
“Hi, you,” a woman in scrubs said to Imando, who has scraggly black fur and had just turned 4 weeks old. “You ready?”
Imando’s teacher, Lourdes Bravo, let go of him for a second. He tottered right into his bowl of food.
This kind of thing goes on round the clock at New York City’s only high-volume kitten nursery, run by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
At the nursery, a concrete-floored, bunkerlike space on East 91st Street, ASPCA staff members and volunteers tend up to 300 stray and orphan kittens at a time, acting as surrogate mothers. They feed them tiny bottles of warmed-up formula. They groom them with a toothbrush, which takes the place of a mama cat’s rough tongue.
“It’s like how it works when they’re nursing,” said Bravo, the nursery’s senior manager. “’My mom licks me, and then I eat.’” Caregivers swab the kittens’ underparts with warm water to stimulate them to go to the bathroom and blow bubbles at them to hone their hunting and pouncing skills.
The ASPCA opened the nursery in 2014 to fill a need: The city-run shelters don’t have the facilities to care for kittens and end up euthanizing hundreds each year. Kittens are also a big strain on the limited resources of the rescue groups that take in cats and dogs.
In a little over two years, the nursery has raised 3,500 kittens. At the city shelters, kitten euthanasias are down by more than 20 percent.
“It’s fantastic that they have the nursery,” said Katy Hansen, a spokeswoman for Animal Care Centers of NYC, which runs the city’s shelters.
Bravo was patient with Imando. She scooped up some wet food on a tongue depressor and held onto him carefully. When he opened his mouth to mew, the food went in.
“I totally took advantage of that meow,” she said.
Little is known of Imando’s biography except that he was found in the College Point neighborhood of Queens. Kittens turn up unattended, in vacant lots, in building basements, in parks, all over the city, for a variety of reasons, Bravo said.
“If a mom is moving a litter very hastily, she may leave one behind,” she said, “like if she’s scared of a predator or if people are threatening her nesting place. Or he may be the only survivor from his litter.”
Kittens come to the nursery as young as 1 day old, usually through the city shelter system. They are evaluated medically and then spend up to two weeks in quarantine. After kittens eat on their own, they move to the “peewee” unit, where their keepers prepare them for adoption by getting them used to being handled.
A volunteer named Kelelyn Lemay demonstrated some of her techniques on Yoshi, an orange-striped 6-week-old.
“We basically want to pet him and talk to him and let him know people are A-OK,” Lemay said. “You can squeeze his little toes like this — that will make it easier to trim his nails later. You massage his scruff and his little ears. This all helps ensure that he knows that people are good.”
She put Yoshi back in his cage and flicked a little jingly ball at him. He pawed it, chased it, knocked it off a shelf and out of the cage. She picked it up and tossed it back to him.
“He’s kind of like a little toddler — he likes to throw his toys on the floor,” she said.
The cages are stacked four high. Kittens from the same litter are kept together and given matching names: Orion, Ozzy and Osbourne in one cage; Hallie, Hamlet and Hiro in the next.
At 8 weeks, the kittens are neutered and spayed and move around the corner to the ASPCA’s adoption center on East 92nd Street.
The nursery is open only during “kitten season” — April through November. Feral cats rarely breed in cold months. As November wound down, the nursery had only about 100 kittens, and any that remain at the end of the month will go into foster care.
Ten minutes into Imando’s feeding lesson with Bravo, he seemed to be getting the hang of it. He stopped flailing his tiny paws at the tongue depressor and licked the food off it instead. Soon the bowl was empty, though much of the food wound up on Imando. “Too bad we don’t have a little kitten high chair to put him in,” Bravo said.
She wiped the kitten clean and put him back in his cage, next to a stuffed tiger and a crocheted mat. His tummy was full and he looked sleepy.
His next feeding would be in five hours.