Heather Hecke, 11, was getting ready to hang out the laundry Tuesday when she heard the kittens crying in the garage. Her cat, Cuddles, gave birth to three kittens the day before. She had just delivered two more.
The first one was normal but Heather was puzzled by the strange features of the other.
It had two sets of eyes, two noses and a grotesquely crooked mouth. She yelled for her 13-year-old cousin, Danielle Tucker, because she thought someone or something had mauled the tiny animal.
"Then I threw it on the couch because I was afraid," Heather said.
No one wanted to have much to do with the deformed kitten at first. It was rejected by its siblings. Cuddles refused to nurse it. Heather's mother, Teresa Hecke, wanted to have it destroyed.
"It just turned my stomach," said Ms. Hecke. "I said, 'What are we gonna do with that?' "
But it didn't take long for the children to soften. Heather and Danielle felt sorry for the helpless kitten. Though they expected it to die in a matter of hours, they lined a small woven basket with matchless socks to keep it warm. A neighbor suggested they feed it from a syringe filled with warm milk.
They did, and fed the kitten every half hour throughout the night.
"We were surprised that it survived last night," Ms. Hecke said Wednesday.
Hence, the kitten's name: Survivor. No one has been able to determine the animal's gender, but the girls usually refer to their pet as a "she."
Ms. Hecke, who is unemployed, said she doesn't have the money to take Survivor to a veterinarian for care.
"I don't think the vet can do anything except what we're doing," she said. "We're just going to feed it and see how long it can survive."
Some local animal specialists said Survivor's case is very rare and taking care of her at home may prolong her misery.
Dr. Alfred P. Marshall, a veterinarian at East Bay Animal Hospital in Largo, said the kitten's deformities may be too extensive to treat.
"Usually we don't ask the animals to suffer," he said.
Dr. Deborah Edwards, a veterinarian at All Cats Hospital in Clearwater, said the antibodies in the mother's milk are vital to the survival of the kitten. And since Cuddles won't nurse Survivor, it already may be too late.
"The likelihood of survival for a baby kitten like this is very poor," Edwards said. "If it were suffering, then putting the kitten to sleep would probably be the best option."
But the girls say they'll take care of Survivor as long as she hangs on.
"It's like their own baby, not an animal," Ms. Hecke said.