AUBURN — After 10 years as foster parents for the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society, Patti and Al Bussiere have trouble listing all the cats and kittens who have come through their home. But there are those they’ll never forget.

Their first; orphaned tiger kittens named Homer, Bart, Scout, Toby and Sassie by the neighborhood children. Whiskers, the calico mother cat they couldn’t bear to part with. Siamese triplets Ying, Yang and Susie. The litter of all black kittens that the Bussieres couldn’t tell apart, except for one — the only boy.

A co-worker of Patti’s had encouraged the Bussieres to consider fostering years ago. Patti was easy to convince. Al took time.

A decade later, they’ve served as foster parents longer than anyone else with the shelter.

“I remember him saying, ‘Where are we going to put them? They’re going to run all over the place,'” Patti said. “Now it’s like, ‘Pfft.'”

The Bussieres were already animal lovers, though he was partial to dogs and she had more experience with cats. They signed up to take both.

Their first fosters were orphaned kittens, tiny balls of fluff without a mother to teach them the ways of the world, including the ways of the litter box. Soon, the Bussieres were offering a temporary home to a successive line of pregnant cats, cats with a young litter in tow and orphaned newborn kittens who needed round-the-clock care. 

Al, medically retired from his job as a produce manager, bottle fed one litter of orphans every hour when they first arrived.

“It was pretty constant,” he said. “The others are sleeping, you’re feeding one. You put that one down and one of the other ones wake up and he’s hungry. So you feed the other one, then you put him down and you’re picking up another one.”

Most of the time, the Bussieres were successful with their emergency kitten care. Other times they weren’t.

They once lost all the kittens but one from an orphaned litter.

“It was like they just needed their mother. No matter how much you feed them, they just kind of melt away,” Patti said. “I felt like I failed.”

But for every kitten who dies, there are a dozen who thrive. The Bussieres, who keep the kittens until they’re about 8 weeks old, can’t count the number of cats who have gone through their home. They believe they’ve fostered hundreds.

When they first started, they thought one of their biggest challenges would be giving up the cats after weeks of loving them. They were right.

“I can’t say I haven’t shed a tear for them. And I know she has,” Al said of his wife.

The Bussieres currently have three cats of their own — all fosters they couldn’t part with. They’ve set a pet limit: three cats and three dogs, no matter how sweet or adorable the next one might be.  

“When they get to the point of running around and climbing on everything, you know when it’s time to go,” Patti said with a laugh. “But you always get a litter that there’s one you just get like, ‘Aww! He’s a keeper.'”

“There was a couple in the last litter we had …” Al said.

Although the Bussieres long ago signed up to foster dogs as well, they’ve only been asked once, when the shelter needed a temporary home for seven puppies. Seven kittens were one thing (they’ve had as many as 11 at one time), but that many puppies needed more room than the Bussieres had, so they declined. They’re still open to taking in a dog or two, but cats remain their focus. 

Now, they’re caring for Chloe, her four newborn kittens and a fifth, orphaned kitten Chloe has adopted as her own. They have their own area in the laundry room, a nook that’s quiet and out of the way but still allows the family’s dogs to wander by for a quick sniff hello.

It’s that socializing — with the Bussieres’ dogs and cats, friends’ young grandchildren and other visitors — that’s helped make the Bussieres’ house a popular foster home.

“When the kittens come back from their home they always are so well-rounded and they get adopted really quickly because they’re so well socialized,” Zach Black, the humane society’s operations manager, said.

However, the Bussieres say there’s something that would help them connect with and socialize the mother cats even more: Former owners being honest about the cat’s background and name.

“They say, ‘We found them, she’s a stray.’ It would just be so much easier if they would just say ‘This is my cat, I can’t take care of it’ instead,” Patti said. “Because then we get them as fosters. If we knew their name, at least, it would be so much easier to acclimate them.”

But even when they don’t know anything about a cat — including her name — the Bussieres find a way to connect with her. And her kittens.

“You’re giving it a good start so it’s going to go to a loving home and it’ll be easier for it to fit in that loving home,” Patti said.

“Not just from a cage into somebody’s arms,” Al added.

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Contact Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or [email protected].

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