In five years at MCAS, Jackie Vitron has scaled a lifetime of experience in animal care to meet the demands of 1,000 kittens treated through the Kitten Triage Program each year.
A Childhood Menagerie
Jackie was born into her love of animals with a family that kept all kinds of pets: mice, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, cats, dogs, and ponies. At fifteen, Jackie had her first jobs in horse training. She later volunteered at a local vet clinic, and was hired on to help.
A Lifetime of Animal Care
As a young adult, Jackie joined a military family. While stationed in Germany, she worked for a local horse stable for three years. After returning to Ft. Lewis, she spent another three years working at a local feed store, and at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.
Neonatal Animals and Rehabilitation
Jackie found her calling while working night shifts at Sarvey Wildlife Care Center, North of Seattle. There she watched over newborn, sick, and injured animals in need of care around-the-clock, including feedings, cleanings, or administering medication. According to Jackie, there’s nothing as rewarding as “taking a sick animal that you worry won’t make it, then they get over their hump, recover, and you see them grow and regain their health.”
After moving to Portland, Jackie worked at a veterinary rehabilitation office and went back to school. She was also hired as an on-call Animal Care Aid at MCAS, where she helped cover vet assistant work in the on-site Animal Hospital.
In 2012, MCAS piloted a Kitten Triage Program to help care for and save kittens, who often require extensive monitoring and care, especially newborns without a mother to warm, feed, and clean them. Prior to the program, staff resources, a foster network, and supplies weren’t readily available to care for kittens when they arrived at the shelter. The Kitten Triage Program was designed to create dedicated roles to attend to kittens upon arrival, a separate space from other animals in the shelter before being sent to foster care, and more intensive care to treat sick and injured kittens.
Jackie interviewed for a full-time Animal Care Technician position at MCAS. With her background in neonatal care and rehabilitating sick and injured animals, Jackie was the perfect fit to support the Kitten Triage Program. She admits that the biggest challenge for her is the scale of operations. “I had plenty of experience working with neonatal animals and bottle-feeding, but it wasn’t by the thousands!”
Volunteers to the Rescue
In her role caring for kittens, Jackie recognizes that volunteers are her most valuable assets. The kitten triage program couldn’t successfully operate without volunteer support at the shelter, and an extensive network of foster volunteers. “Learning to trust, count on, train, and mentor volunteers through the process of kitten care to gain confidence and skill has helped immensely. I rely on the volunteers a lot, and they’re a fantastic group of people willing to donate their time, money, and energy to save animals. They have a level of commitment beyond anything. Without them, it would not be possible to save the number of animals we do.”
Jackie’s first and closest volunteer support in the kitten trailer comes from her daughter, Alana. “Since Alana could walk, she’s helped rescue wildlife and stray animals.” Jackie and Alana intended to volunteer together before Jackie was hired, and fourteen-year-old Alana couldn’t wait to get into the kitten trailer to help. “She would show other volunteers around, introduce them to staff members, and explain how to do things in the trailer.”
Daniel the Kitten
The 2019 kitten season was the most memorable yet for Jackie due to several milestone cases. There was Flora, the first feline panleukopenia (FPLV) survivor treated by the shelter, made possible thanks to the advocacy of her foster volunteer, Laresa R., and shelter veterinarians.
Last- but certainly not least- was Daniel the Kitten (now known as Bob post-adoption). He stands as a reminder for Jackie that of the 1,000 kittens we care for each year, every case is unique and unpredictable.
Daniel was only a few days old when he arrived at MCAS. Soon after moving through the Kitten Triage Trailer and being placed in foster-care with Robynne R, Daniel developed an open wound, and large patches of skin started falling off from the back of his neck. Robynne worked closely with Jackie and shelter veterinarians to diagnose and treat the root cause of Daniel’s wound. They cleaned and closed his wound with surgical staples, and started treatments for the most likely fungal and bacterial infections. After a week, Daniel tested positive for a staph infection, for which he was already being treated. Supporters of the kitten triage program, Robynne, shelter veterinarians, and Jackie saved Daniel from the infection and its detrimental effects, and he was adopted into a caring home.
Winds of Change
Even in five years, Jackie has seen significant improvements as the bar is raised. Community standards and expectations change over time, as does the animal care industry. One of the biggest positive changes affecting cats and kittens is the capacity to treat for Ringworm. “There was a time when we didn’t treat for ringworm. It’s been a matter of developing a system where we can avoid contaminating the healthy animals while treating the affected ones. Also, this is the first year fosters have been willing to take cats and kittens with ringworm- they just need special cleaning protocols and an extra room.” This change in treating ringworm took place in many animal shelters regionally and nationwide. One shelter models how it can be done, and others follow- becoming a life-saving industry standard. “It’s a cultural shift,” Jackie says. “Views have to change from accepting the way we’ve always done things to really questioning why, why not, and exploring how things can be better.”
Jackie attributes successes in lifesaving to the advocacy, experience in shelter medicine, and instincts of shelter veterinarians. “A lot of times, the way to save an animal isn’t easy, but our vets have the confidence to say ‘we can save this animal if their caretaker (foster) is willing to go the extra mile, monitoring them, administering medications every two hours, etc.’”
Lifesaving is driven by the passion and hard work of volunteers, staff, and supporters, and today the Kitten Triage Program maintains a 95% live-release-rate for kittens as a result. Jackie’s advice for staff and volunteers is to “know your limits of what you’re comfortable doing or holding onto, and stick to them. Animal welfare can be a very discouraging and emotionally difficult choice in careers. Go to bat and advocate for the animals, but it’s like Kenny Rogers says- ‘You've got to know when to hold 'em. Know when to fold 'em.’ Be prepared for anything and go to work with an open mind- because we see everything here.”
Thank you, Jackie, for your continued service for the pets and people of Multnomah County.