When Shannon Kirkman picked up a cat named Izabelle from the city shelter, she was nursing 14 kittens - but only a few of them were her own.
"She was in a home with two other adult female cats who were all pregnant at the same time," Kirkman, foster and adoption coordinator for Best Friends Animal Society, told The Dodo. "But the two other female cats were not nursing their kittens, so the owners put all the other kittens together to see if Izabelle would take care of them. And she did."
The owners ultimately decided that they had too many cats in their home, so they surrendered Izabelle and all 14 kittens to Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC). From there, the ACC staff reached out to Best Friends Animal Society, and asked the group to help Izabelle and her unconventional family.
The kittens had come with names: Arcade, Mahko, Grizzly, Hyperion, Dill, Moose, Tiramisu, Curry, Zuko, Zeta, Aerya, Nyx, Mace and Swirl.
Kirkman will never forget the look on Izabelle's face when she first saw her - Izabelle looked completely worn out.
"She is such a wonderful mama, but she was clearly exhausted and dehydrated and underweight for giving everything she had to the kittens," Kirkman said. "When I picked her up, she kind of looked at us, and was like, 'Help!'"
Besides producing milk for 14 babies, Izabelle had to manage the kittens. Some were bigger than the others, and she had to make sure the tiniest kittens were getting their share of milk.
"It almost seemed like she was nursing in shifts," Kirkman said. "She was just kind of cleaning some of them, while the others were nursing."
Luckily, Izabelle got the help she badly needed.
The first thing Kirkman did was take Izabelle and the kittens to the vet for a checkup.
Every single kitten was in perfect health, which meant that Izabelle's hard work had paid off. But Izabelle herself wasn't doing so well - she needed fluids to rehydrate her body, extra nutrition and relaxation.
The vet team determined that the older kittens could be put on solid wet food, and some of the youngest kittens could be fed with formula. Then they placed six of the kittens in foster care, leaving Izabelle with just eight babies to look after, which substantially lightened Izabelle's parental responsibilities.
After losing her first family, Kirkman almost expected Izabelle to not be friendly towards people. But Izabelle proved her wrong.
"She's super loving, very caring and super gentle," Kirkman said. "The second you go to pet her, she purrs loudly and really nuzzles up to you. She's a very special girl."
Once the remaining eight kittens are weaned, spayed and neutered, the animals will be put up for adoption.
"We're just looking for loving homes with people who would accept these kittens into their family, just as we would for any of our other animals in our program," Kirkman said. "I think once Izabelle is spayed, and she'll be ready to go, she'll make a wonderful companion for just about any home she goes to."