Every two hours, Susan Wones’ alarm blares, signaling it’s time for another feeding.
She walks into her office in her south Denver home and pulls the tiny kittens — small enough to curl up in the palm of a single hand — from the incubator she set up in her spare room. One by one, she feeds them from a tiny dropper and returns them to the incubator.
She’ll repeat the process again in two hours, even through the middle of the night. Wones became accustomed to living without sleep in her 28 years volunteering for the Denver Dumb Friends League.
Wones, 60, started volunteering for the Dumb Friends League in 1993 and has volunteered more than 28,000 hours for the nonprofit animal shelter — an average of 19 hours a week, every week, for 28 years. And those are only the hours she’s officially logged with the organization. In that time, she’s fostered more than 2,000 animals.
“It just makes you feel good,” Wones said.
Wones’ decades-long volunteer stint started when she went to the Dumb Friends League in 1993 to adopt a cat but couldn’t decide which of two kittens to choose. She walked out of the shelter with two cats and a volunteer gig.
Wones started volunteering by cleaning kennels and helping with laundry. Her duties expanded over time and she started feeding animals and preparing medications. Her first foray into fostering was a litter of four puppies.
“I cried and cried when I had to take them back,” she said.
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Letting her fosters go has become easier over time, but some goodbyes still sting. Some of the adopters keep in touch and send Wones photos of their pets as they grow. And sometimes she just can’t let them leave — she’s adopted 12 of her fosters.
In recent years, she’s specialized in fostering the shelter’s tiniest kittens that still need to be bottle-fed, and has kittens in her home consistently every year from April through September. During those six sleep-deprived months, her legs are often covered with scratches from clambering kittens.
Some of the kittens she takes in weigh less than a fifth of a pound, or about the weight of a single egg. She purchased an incubator so she could keep the tiny creatures warm.
Friends who visit know that there might be a kitten (or several) when they come over. “They just know there might be a kitten on them and they might get peed on,” she said.
For one brief period, she had 17 foster cats in her house at once in addition to her own pets.
“I had them in bathrooms, in bedrooms, in the living room,” she said, laughing. “That was a lot of work.”
In her free time between caring for her fosters and her full-time job as a business analyst, Wones makes cat collars for the shelter’s animals and fills syringes with medicine so staff at the facility don’t have to.
Fostering animals, especially puppies and kittens, also has its heartbreak, though. Not all of them survive. Some become sick or are not strong enough to make it away from their mother.
“As hard as it is, at least I know they got some love in their lives,” she said.
The pain is worth it for the love she feels from the animals and for the community of volunteers she’s come to see as family over the decades.
“I’ll do it as long as I can,” she said.
This story is part of The Denver Post’s Faces of the Front Range project, highlighting Coloradans with a unique story to share. Read more from this series here.
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