Ronda Layne’s rescue pit bull, Zuca, seemed despondent and slept more than usual after her favorite feline companion, Stout, died of kidney disease in 2013.
Then one afternoon, Ronda came home with a kitten named Monkey that she’d volunteered to foster for an animal shelter near her home in Portland, Oregon. Zuca perked up and gently approached the kitten, and the pair formed an immediate bond.
“Monkey jumped on Zuca and tried to nurse on her,” recalls Ronda, 47, “and they were soon curled up together like best friends. Zuca weighs 50 pounds, but she was very careful around Monkey and was always patient and gentle. It was like magic. I knew right then that she had a gift.”
One foster kitten soon led to an entire litter living temporarily with Ronda, until the kittens were old enough to be spayed and neutered and adopted into loving homes. And in the last four years, there have been close to 100 more, inspiring Ronda to start an Instagram page for Zuca.
“Zuca is the best surrogate mom these kittens could hope for,” Ronda, who now devotes much of her time to animal rescue work in Portland, tells PEOPLE. “She seems to know instantly exactly what they need. If it’s a feral kitten, she’ll be perfectly still, won’t make eye contact and will wait for the kitten to approach her. She ‘reads’ the kitten and figures out when to look at it, wag her tail or move her head. It’s fascinating to watch those first interactions.”
Because Zuca spent six months in a cage at a shelter, Ronda thinks that helps her to relate to the orphaned kittens that spend anywhere from one week to several months with her and her husband, Patrick.
“When I first saw her at a Humane Society shelter in 2006, I noticed there was something very different about her compared to the other dogs,” Ronda tells PEOPLE. “She was sitting quietly and barely wagging her tail while the other dogs were jumping up and down and barking.”
“I wondered how she’d do around the cats I had at the time, so I took her into the shelter’s cattery to see what would happen, ” she adds, “and Zuca walked up to the cats and wagged her tail. Right then, I decided to adopt her.”
When she took Zuca home, the pit bull instantly became attached to Stout, one of the family’s two cats.
“For the next seven years, they didn’t leave each other’s side,” Ronda says. “They always shared their food with each other, and Stout would even go walking with us. When I had to put Stout down at age 17, Zuca tried to guard her when the vet came to our house. It was sad to see her become so depressed after her best buddy was gone.”
Today there is no sign of that unhappy time, with Zuca nurturing every boxful of kittens that Ronda brings home.
Although she is now 12 years old with a bionic knee, “she still loves to sleep with the kittens and is extremely patient, allowing them to jump all over her, even when they bite and scratch,” says Ronda.
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But Zuca’s favorite duty comes after every meal.
“She loves to clean up the kittens after they’ve eaten,” says Ronda, “especially when they’ve spilled milk and kitten food all over their paws. She’s become really good at giving them baths.”