I never planned on working in a kitten nursery. Before last year, I didn’t even know such a mythical place existed. And I certainly never planned on walking away from a successful writing career to clean poop-encrusted cat cages for nearly nine hours a day and a little over $12 an hour.
But that’s exactly what happened last spring when, on a lark, I applied for a caregiver position at a nonprofit seasonal kitten nursery in New York City. An offshoot of a major animal-welfare nonprofit, the nursery serves as a mini-shelter that rescues only kittens under two months old. Staffed 24 hours a day, the nursery provides continual care to New York’s smallest, most vulnerable orphaned cats, many of whom are just days or weeks old and unable to survive on their own.
Aside from volunteering with pets and living with cats all my life, I had no experience working with animals. All I knew was that I felt mentally stymied from the pressure and instability of working in media. At that point, I’d been working for almost a year as a contract managing editor for a blog owned by a TV company. Though I made good money, I wasn’t eligible for benefits and my paychecks were irregular. I was so burned out that I had little time or incentive to pursue the sorts of writing assignments I actually cared about.
I also hated working from home every day — something I realize makes me an anomaly among, well, nearly every self-respecting twenty- or thirtysomething. Sure, wearing nothing but yoga pants all day was comfy, but it could also get lonely; sometimes I’d go for days without a concrete reason to leave the house. My job also required that I stay on Facebook all day to monitor trending news, and I found myself crushed by the never-ending stream of connectedness (great, more back-to-school photos from yet another faraway acquaintance’s third child whom I had yet to meet!).
But the most significant reason I decided to pursue a job in kitten-care was a simple one: I feel happiest around animals. I'd always known that, but I'd never pursued that type of work because I felt strangely guilty about the idea of walking away from my writing career, even temporarily. I'd published well-received books and written for some of my favorite magazines, and I couldn't imagine how my friends would see this New Me — a single 39-year-old woman who had finally succumbed to her Craziest Cat Lady tendencies, choosing to clean diarrhea-crusted kitten cages all day over a successful career in publishing.
But I couldn’t keep treading water solely to meet other people’s expectations, or even my own outdated ones. As a kid, when I fantasized about my future, I saw myself at cool parties in book-stuffed, dimly lit NYC lofts. I would live a glamorously literary life brimming with smart, sharp-tongued friends and paramours. Of course, life rarely works out quite the way we envision, and by 39 I found myself glaringly far removed from that childhood dream life. More than that, I wasn’t even sure I wanted that life anymore. What my gut kept telling me I needed was a shock — a series of new and unrecognizable experiences to jolt me from stagnation and, hopefully, lead me into something more meaningful.
Working at the kitten nursery was even more of a jolt than I’d bargained for. Instead of lolling about in my living room in pajamas until 1 p.m., I was out the door at 5:30 a.m. My schedule was Fridays through Mondays, beginning at 7 a.m. I endured the public humiliation of wearing pastel scrubs on the subway every day. There was a no-cell-phone policy at the nursery, so I’d only check my phone on my lunch break — no emails, no texts, no Instagram, nothing. It was surprisingly terrifying, and more than a little freeing.
And then there was the actual work. Unlike with my writing career, where I'd spend hours on end on my couch, the only time I sat down during my shifts was to feed kittens that couldn’t eat on their own. I spent 85% of my days there on my feet: cleaning cages, weighing cats, preparing food and bottles of formula, and hauling supplies. Each caregiver worked alone to care for his or her section of kittens (anywhere from 30 to 50 felines at a time). I was so physically exhausted at the end of every day that I couldn’t do anything but collapse into the bathtub the moment I walked through my front door. That is, after I’d inhaled all the junk food in sight — the intense physical labor every day meant I was starving all the time.
And then there was my salary. I was obviously making far less than I’d been making in my past job, so I’ve had to dip heavily into my savings to support myself as a single person in Brooklyn. I recently cut back my work at the nursery to two days a week to give me more time to write — after taking a break, turns out I kinda missed it! Kitten season is almost over, though, so my job at the nursery — which is only open for about six months at a stretch — will be ending soon.
I'm planning to ramp up new writing projects, reach out to old contacts, and hopefully find a job that will help me pad my savings account a bit. But I'd consider applying to the kitten nursery again. Though my work there has been incredibly draining on both a physical and emotional level — it’s rough when the kittens don’t make it — it’s also been rewarding. I get paid to stare into the faces of the tiniest, cutest creatures you could ever imagine. And I feel like what I'm doing is making a concrete impact — it’s a great feeling to help wean a kitten from the bottle to wet food, and even better to see them get adopted to a great family when they’re old enough.
I’m still figuring out what my longterm career plans look like, and how much of it will involve working with animals. I can’t imagine returning to a traditional cubicle environment five days a week, and this job has taught me that there’s palpable relief in being forcibly removed from my computer, my phone, and my own head for hours upon hours.
Most importantly, after finding that my career as a writer didn't exactly live up to my childhood dreams, it was pretty amazing to stumble into a "dream job" — even if, just like a dream, it can't last forever.