Cats multiply quickly. For some reason, people don't seem to have gotten the spay and neuter message for cats quite as much as they have for dogs....and so in the Treasure Valley we have a cat over-population problem. Each year, thousands of cats are put down solely because they can't find homes. It's tragic...but you can help stem the problem by becoming a foster parent, and providing temporary shelter. If you foster a litter of kittens until they are old enough to get fixed and to have their mom fixed, you can provide a space for them to grow up, provide much-needed socialization so they don't grow up afraid of people, spare them and their mom the stress of shelter life and the confinement of a metal cage, and enjoy the baby time without the responsibility of caring for them all their lives. When they are old enough, you can help find them homes, or you can return them to the shelter for adoption...and when they are kittens they are cute enough to have a shot at it.
Don't be intimidated about fostering. The mother cat will do all the hard work - you need to provide food, water, and a safe, warm place. I use the guest room or spare bedroom. We attached a screen door so that mom and kittens can see and interact with our pets through a safe barrier. Once they get used to each other we let them interacted, monitored. I put down kitten toys, a blanket, and a low-sided litter box. For the first few weeks not much happens - the kittens nurse and grow, and it's fun to see when they start their wobbly walks and when their eyes open. Around 4 to 5 weeks they begin to learn to use the litterbox. They learn that well on their own 99.9% of the time.
Around 5 weeks I usually start getting them on solid food, and once they are all eating solid food 3x a day with healthy appetites we go through weaning - which is hard, as you have to separate mom from her babies and she will often lay on the other side of the door and pine for them hour after hour, day after day. (It takes 7-10 days for her milk to dry up enough for her to get spayed, and then she can interact again - though watch out for kittens trying to nurse her now-sore tummy!) Depending on the agency you foster for, the kittens may be spayed and neutered when they get to 8 weeks or 2 pounds, or may be adopted out with a contract that they be spayed/neutered at 6 months.
There are many great organizations you can foster for. For an application to foster through the Idaho Humane Society, click here. To foster for Conrad Strays, Inc., click here. For Northwest Animal Companions volunteer page click here. To help Simply Cats, click here. There are many more - check your area for local rescue groups and shelters; they almost always need help.
How do you decide who to foster for? The most important thing is what kind of support will you receive while fostering? If you have an unplanned trip, can someone take over for you? Who is responsible for getting the kittens adopted? One group I fostered for didn't have much infrastructure and I ended up advertising the kittens myself and having huge pressures to get them homes without much help. It was very stressful, and there was never anyone to cover for me....in fact I covered for others, sometimes having more cats/kittens to deal with than I was comfortable with.
I switched to fostering for the Humane Society because they have many options and great infrastructure. Due to their website and other advertising most kittens get adopted by 12 weeks, and if not, you can put them on the floor at the shelter and once on display they are usually gone in a few hours or days at the most. (Beyond 12 weeks kittens start to look like cats and have a harder time getting placed - find them homes when they are young!)
There are always a few frustrating things here and there (adopters who flake, kittens who get sick or miss the litterbox now and then, employees of the shelter who give you the run around, etc.) but the minor negatives are far outweighed by the huge positives of saving lives and playing with the kittens.
By handling them when they are young they learn not to fear people. I also expose them to dogs and other cats, and they end up being happy, healthy, and ready for the world. It's fun to match families with kittens and to hear back on how good the match worked out. I would suggest starting with one litter and seeing how it goes. Now that we've fostered for several years we can comfortably handle a dozen kittens at a time. It's chaos - but so much fun!!! I remember all of them, all their names, and what was special about each one. I highly recommend fostering....the animals need you. For each one you take home you free a cage so another can have the space and not get put down, plus you save the one you took home, and you prevent more by getting them fixed.
The hardest part is not keeping them all!