A landscaper for most of his life, Jose Arias knows his way around a CAT construction loader. So when the 31-year-old owner of Green Forest Landscaping thought he heard a faint mewing sound coming from inside the machinery late in the afternoon at a work site in Draper, Utah, on August 9th, he knew exactly what to do.
Calling over the other five members of his crew, Arias asked them to help him take apart the front end of the loader. Twenty minutes later, his suspicions were confirmed: Nestled in a crawl space in the middle of the CAT were six hungry three-week-old kittens.
“It’s not something you see every day — cats inside a CAT,” he tells PEOPLE with a laugh. “We don’t know how long they were in there, but it must have been awfully noisy and bumpy. My first thought was, ‘OK, now what? I don’t even have one cat. What am I going to do with six?”
After taking the six kittens to his Lehi, Utah, home and contacting an animal rescue group, Arias and his crew heard the mewing sound again the following morning.
“We took apart the CAT loader again and there it was: one more kitten,” he says. “We’re not sure how we missed it the first time. We’re thinking that maybe the mother cat put the seventh kitten in the loader that night after we’d taken out the other cats.”
Although Arias’ three children were hoping to keep all of the kittens, he turned them over to Ashley Valley Community Cats, an Utah-based cat rescue organization.
Volunteers caught the mother cat in a trap and reunited her with her brood. Once the kittens are weaned, mom will be spayed and all of the kittens will be put up for adoption.
“It’s not often that we’re surprised in the rescue world,” Audrey Moulton, Utah County coordinator for the rescue group, tells PEOPLE. “We like to think we’ve seen it all. But we were shocked to receive a call about a litter of kittens found inside a CAT machine that had been in use for most of the day.”
Moulton says that quick action on Arias’ part actually saved the litter twice: once from inside the CAT machine and the second time from euthanasia by turning them over to a no-kill animal rescue.
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“Kittens, especially young neonatal kittens like these three-week olds, have one of the highest euthanasia rates in shelters,” she says. “Shelters are overwhelmed, understaffed and simply don’t have the resources to give the around-the-clock care tiny kittens need for a few weeks until they reach an age when they can be fixed and adopted out.”
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Ashley Valley volunteers have named the kittens after “Lord of the Rings” characters: Sauron, Smaug, Gollum and Legolas for the males and Arwen, Gandalf and Galadriel for the females.
Arias, though, says that if his kids convince him to adopt one of the kittens, they have another name in mind.
“My youngest son wants to name a kitten ‘Stacy,’ ” he tells PEOPLE. “So if they finally talk me into it, that’s what he or she will be. Stacy.”