Above: Michele Graham with kittens at Pet Helpers animal shelter. (Photo by Catie Cleveland)

By Kennedy Robinson

Ideas can spark from anywhere. Just ask rising junior Michele Graham. A compelling notion hit her late one night while volunteering at a local animal shelter a few years ago.

After observing how abandoned kittens struggle to eat without a nursing mother – and how challenging it is to bottle-feed multiple kittens at a time – Graham dreamed up a solution. It’s part soothing surrogate, part milk-delivery device. This spring, she submitted her invention to the 2023 College of Charleston Student Entrepreneur of the Year pitch contest and ended up with top honors, including a $1,000 prize.

mother cat with kittens

Kittens feed using Surro-Kitty.

Since she was a young girl, Graham has had a deep-seated love of animals. Her time volunteering at a local animal shelter was a means of giving back to the thing that brings her so much joy. During that time, Graham learned that young kittens need to be fed every two hours, either from a nursing mother or from a bottle. And she was heartbroken to learn that many kittens are euthanized because a foster family, surrogate mother or suitable volunteer isn’t available.

“That’s the scenario that led me to create the Surro-Kitty®,” Graham explains. “One night, two kittens were brought into the shelter while I was volunteering. No one was available to care for them because it was so late, so I decided to step up.

“While bottle-feeding the kittens, I realized that they didn’t understand how to nurse from a bottle,” continues Graham, who is majoring in biology. “They’re accustomed to nursing naturally.”

Given that, she began conjuring a design for the Surro-Kitty® to simulate a nursing mother cat. The goal was to provide the kittens with a lifelike feeding process.

Graham’s inspiration succeeded. The device is available for sale in multiple models that can hold anywhere from four to eight bottles of milk at a time. The Surro-Kitty® also comes with customizable elements, including a built-in purring sound, the option of heat and different color fabrics to offer a more realistic experience for the kittens.

For the time being, this native Charlestonian plans to continue promoting Surro-Kitty® and expanding her company’s reach while completing her undergraduate work. Ultimately, she hopes to enroll in veterinary school to make working with animals her profession. Meanwhile, Surro-Kitty® will continue to be used in and sold to veterinarian offices, animal shelters and foster homes.

Since the device has been on the market, Graham calculates that sales have surpassed $50,000. As impressive as that is, she’s really just getting started.