By Nona Tepper
In May 2016, a cat walked into Christina Vasilakis' alley on the 1100 block of Ferdinand in Forest Park, eyeing her across a lush garden. The scrappy calico, soon to be named Katrina, made eye contact with Vasilakis and held her gaze. After a few weeks, Katrina entered the garden and a bond formed between the stray and the Forest Parker. A routine began.
Katrina would walk over daily, seeking shade in the greenery, and Vasilakis would put out food and water. Then she traveled to Berlin to visit her husband who was away on business. When she returned, Katrina was gone.
"She just disappeared," Vasilakis recalled. "Then one day she reappeared, and I was like, 'I gotta figure out about this cat.'"
The next day, Katrina briefly hung out in the garden, then walked south across three neighbors' front lawns. Vasilakis tiptoed behind her. The cat led her down a gangway, stopping abruptly and making a chirping sound. Then four tiny kittens emerged from underneath the house. She let Vasilakis pet them immediately.
"I was just gasping," Vasilakis said. "The trust — I felt like it was an honor to be seeing them."
Vasilakis called the Animal Care League in Oak Park, where an official told her about fostering the kittens. Already the happy owner of four cats and two dogs, fostering sounded like a fair option for Vasilakis.
"I just wanted [Katrina] to be the only cat in a family where she would have a lot more attention." She took the new family home and for about three months Vasilakis nursed the kittens. When they reached 2 pounds, she dropped them off at the Animal Care League, where they were spayed, neutered and eventually adopted into good homes.
Two years later, Vasilakis estimates she and her husband Craig have now fostered more than 100 cats and kittens, ranging in age and gender. Vasilakis uses her own funds to feed the cats, tend to their medical needs, train them to use the litter box and much more.
"When they're very young, I try not to leave the house for more than four hours at a time," she said, and gets them on an eating schedule, feeding them first formula from a spoon, then moving to wet food and finally graduating to kibble. Normally, fostering takes about eight weeks for the kittens to make weight, but some cats have stayed with her for as long as a year.
For their efforts, the Petco Foundation recognized the Vasilakises in late June, naming them one of 50 "All-Star Foster" couples in the nation and awarding them a $150 shopping spree at a Petco store.
"Foster volunteers are lifesaving heroes," Susanne Kogut, president of the Petco Foundation, said in a statement. "They work tirelessly to care for the most vulnerable animals and we are proud to be able to celebrate their work."
Vasilakis said she's learned patience and earned trust from the cats, as well as how to live more in the moment. She started as a foster mom for her shitzu, Cosette, and later decided not to part with her. Cupcake, a gray, long-haired cat, walked in her house one day and never left. "If people want to add a pet to their household, when you foster, it's like a trial period to see how it is, experience what it's like for a finite period of time," she said.
There was Trevor, a crazy little kitten who looked at his reflection in the mirror one day and fell in love with himself, from then on sleeping next to the bathroom mirror every night. There was the young mom with six kittens, one of whom caught a bad cold and couldn't latch and feed from his mother's teat. Vasilakis cleaned out the baby's nose, eyes and bottle fed him back to health. She remembers Bigsby, an older tuxedo cat who lived out the remainder of his life with the couple. Friends made up a backstory for the old male, joking that he was a retired international spy.
"We consoled ourselves that he was here with us for almost of a year," she recalled. "Everyone at the shelter was broken up when he died. We like to think Britain called and his country needed him and he had go."
The Vasilakises plan to continue fostering animals as long as they can.
"I get really frustrated by the statement, 'Oh, I could never foster.' It's very dismissive," she said. "Fostering isn't about you, it's about the animal. It helps the shelter because then your resources kind of become an extension of their resources. By letting these animals into your home, they have more room for other animals to come into the shelter."
Answer Book 2018
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