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Fostering hope

An inspiring look at a practice that helps shelters and rescues save more lives. Could you be a foster hero?

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2015

A loving foster caregiver helped May find a great home with Theresa Gorman and Risto Laboski.Kittens at a Louisiana SPCA event drink formula in the weeks before their adoption.Between bottle-feeding kittens and providing a little behavior help for rowdy adolescent pooches, foster families are a crucial bridge for homeless animals, helping shelters and rescues save more lives.Hannah Shaw, aka “Kitten Lady” (kittenlady.org), has kept only two of the many young cats she’s fostered in Washington, D.C. One is half-blind Eloise, who was returned by an adopter.Eloise: before.Eloise: after.In New Orleans, a dog named Belle, fostered by Louisiana SPCA volunteer Meg Allison, gets a hug from an admirer before her adoption.

For weeks, the small bull terrier mix waited in the shelter, her face obscured by a plastic cone. May had come to the Washington Humane Society in early November, after college students in a D.C. group house could no longer care for her. The last one to move out dropped her off at the shelter. Being in a kennel made her anxious. She rubbed her ears raw, and they became infected. She chewed her tail. Excited by the presence of other dogs, she had jumped so high she landed on a kennel fence, cutting one of her legs badly enough to need stitches—which is why she got the plastic cone around her head, to keep her from licking her wounds.

Staff at the shelter could see that she would make a great pet. But no one seemed to want a dog with a cone.

May’s chances of finding a new home anytime soon would have been slim, if not for Marissa Brock. Like many young foster volunteers, 22-year-old Brock is at an in-between stage of her life—she wants to adopt, but feels she isn’t settled enough. But she can schedule short-term foster animals around her frequent work travel.

In late December, Brock took May home to her D.C. apartment to ready the dog for adoption.

The effect was immediate: Out of the shelter, May was a calmer, happier dog. She rubbed her ears less. She began to heal. The stitches came out. The cone came off. The ear infections started to clear. Within a week, potential adopters were looking at a (coneless) online photo of May. During her walks around the neighborhood, May’s puppy-like face, now unveiled for everyone to see, had kids clamoring to play with her.

A month before May landed at Washington Humane, Theresa Gorman and her fiancé, Risto Laboski, had rented a condo in northwest D.C. It was their first space big enough for the dog they had been hoping to adopt. Because they were first-time dog adopters, shelter staff steered them toward a dog in a foster home. After seeing May’s photo and description on Instagram, they acted quickly. By the end of May’s 12th day in Brock’s apartment, Gorman and Laboski had adopted the dog.

Taking her back to the condo, Laboski says he felt the elation and anxiety a new parent feels taking home a baby. But Gorman and Laboski say they felt able to commit because they’d seen May outside of a shelter and knew they had someone to turn to for advice—someone who’d had her in their home and who, like them, lived in a high-rise and worked during the day. On a recent Saturday morning, “Miss May,” already used to sleeping in her crate during the weekdays, dozes in a strip of sunlight on the living room floor, as Laboski rubs her chest. It’s been three weeks. He and Gorman have already noticed that May blushes in the pink, black-spotted patch of skin just above her nose. She’s pretty much stopped rubbing her ears and chewing her tail and paws. Sometimes, as she sleeps in her dog bed at the foot of their bed, she will wake and start crying, as though she thinks she’s been abandoned again. But then she’ll sniff, realize they’re still there and fall back to sleep. She knows how to sit, is housetrained and does not chew the furniture. She is learning her name and how to walk on a leash. She loves to cuddle.

“Here’s a dog that was in a shelter for months,” says Laboski. “And she’s as good as it gets.”

Increasingly, animals who might once have been difficult for shelters to place are finding their way home the way May did: Fostering can be a crucial link between shelters and adopters, a temporary stay that helps an organization improve the odds for the homeless animals in its care. Many animal welfare groups are looking for reliable “fosters”—people willing to take animals at their most needy, and then, when these animals have grown old enough or healed or been trained, give them up. (Occasionally, volunteers don’t succeed at this last, difficult step and end up keeping the animal; that is called a “failed foster,” but it’s a successful adoption!) Fosters rush in to help animals others discard. They are critical allies for shelters overwhelmed with animals.

At first it was rescue groups that developed foster networks, then, in the 2000s, shelters began foster programs of their own. Volunteers can often foster for a day or a weekend or over a holiday just to give dogs a break from kennel confinement.

“It saves tons of lives, because we wouldn’t have a place to put them otherwise,” says Sarah Barnett, an HSUS staffer who volunteers with a D.C.-area rescue group called the Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation. Barnett started fostering in college and continued even after adopting Dim Sum, the shar-pei she was fostering. Passing the animals she fostered on to adopters over the years has been bittersweet, but she says it was worth it. “Once you’ve found an animal a home, you’ve literally saved that animal’s life.”

Oldies But Goodies cocker spaniel rescue in Northern Virginia sometimes rents kennel space at reduced rates. But that’s just a stopgap measure—the group can’t afford to rescue more than 10 to 15 dogs this way, says president Teresa Butler. Beyond that number, “there are dogs that we might otherwise save … that are going to die” because they are older or sick and difficult to place. That’s the difference a foster can make, Butler says—especially in the busy summer season.

Every spring and summer, shelters around the country receive motherless, unweaned kittens, their survival dependent on weeks of intensive, round-the-clock care. There are the puppies who might get sick in kennels because their immune systems have not yet fully developed, and the older dogs and adult cats who are stressed in the shelter or have behavioral problems that a good foster can help them work through. There are the sick animals and those recovering from surgery, who need individual care over months. There are the surplus animals in shelters struggling with high intake numbers and euthanasia. And there are the animals rescued from disasters, who sometimes need temporary homes until they can return to their families.

After Superstorm Sandy struck the Northeast in 2012, animal welfare groups launched a network for reuniting pets who lost their homes in the disaster with their owners. St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in New Jersey, with help from The HSUS, set up an online system to match foster volunteers with pet owners who needed temporary care for their animals because they were living in cars or motels; 90 animals went through the homes of foster volunteers.

Rescues of animals from puppy mills and hoarding situations also depend on foster networks. The HSUS regularly turns to the shelters and rescues that serve as its emergency placement partners, and most of these rely on foster volunteers. It’s crucial for the animals, who perhaps have never been on grass or carpet or heard a TV or a garage door opener, to get used to being in homes—or they’re unlikely to find permanent ones, says Kim Alboum, HSUS state director in North Carolina and director of the placement partner program. Because rescues often take place in rural areas where foster networks are small or nonexistent, Alboum is working to expand fostering outside cities and suburbs where it’s now popular.

“This is a way for people to get involved in the animal welfare movement,” says Alboum. “And they’re doing something really big.”

A modest group of individuals in a small town can make a huge difference, says David Stroud, executive director of the Cashiers-Highlands Humane Society in the mountains of western North Carolina. Thanks to generous donations, the shelter has the best transport truck in the region, but it lacks a foster network. When Stroud first arrived at the shelter in 2012, he says none of the staff knew what he was talking about when he used the word fostering.

They found out. Cashiers-Highlands picked up 35 dogs from a puppy mill rescue last October. Around a dozen were distributed amongst every member of the staff. Now, Stroud is searching for at least 15 volunteers to be regular fosters. He has three or four. If he could get to 15, he figures he wouldn’t have to turn away any animals from his shelter, which has a two- to three-week wait list.

Shelters coast to coast are challenged by the arrival of spring and kitten season, when they must find surrogate mothers for the feline orphans brought to them week after week. In New Orleans, it begins in March with the arrival of boxes, laundry baskets and plastic storage containers carrying litters people discover in sheds and under bushes, says Allie Mayer, foster coordinator for the Louisiana SPCA. The season doesn’t end until late December. Of the 837 animals the organization placed in foster homes last year, 450 were kittens. Sometimes they come with a mother perfectly suited to caring for them. But usually the mother is missing or feral.

Fostering new kittens takes the commitment that parents with a human baby have—the ability to feed every two or three hours, waking up once or twice a night.

Mayer places two to six kittens with each foster in her circle of “bottle feeders.” They are experienced volunteers who care for kittens during the intense first three to four weeks of their lives. It takes the extreme commitment that parents with a human baby have—the ability to feed every two or three hours, waking up once or twice a night. And it takes emotional fortitude, because kittens, even the best-cared-for ones, die—a mortality rate of 10 percent is common. Once the kittens have opened their eyes and are weaned, the bottle feeders hand these older little ones over to a wider pool of volunteers so that they can take in more of the challenging youngest.

In Washington, D.C., Hannah Shaw, aka “Kitten Lady,” has turned bottle feeding into a lifestyle. Shaw, who fosters for Washington Humane (her paid job is associate campaigns director at Alley Cat Allies), has raised more than 200 orphaned kittens since 2008. Once she fostered three litters with a total of 13 kittens at once. “When they’re little, it doesn’t really matter if there’s one or a whole bunch, you have to wake up. … You’re their mom.”

From the first week kittens arrive in her home, she posts their pictures on Instagram and invites people to meet them. “If you want to save lives, then you have to be able to say goodbye,” she says.

Shaw has kept only two former fosters—her first foster and partially blind Eloise, who was returned by her adopter. The first time one of her fosters died, she cried for three days, wrote him poetry and read the verses over his grave. Now she’s able to accept that she will lose one or two kittens a year. “You have to move forward and realize you’re doing the best you can.”

Rachel Brown, who fosters for Heritage Humane Society in Williamsburg, Va., has pictures of all the dogs who’ve temporarily been part of her family, nearly all of them American Staffordshire and bull terrier mixes like her own dog. There’s Junior, Bennett, Moose, Thurston, Dakota, Chase, Carter, Tiger, Chico and Gotti. And Cotton, her first, whose crazy energy was finally put to use in a state police training program for narcotics detection (he was adopted by his police handler’s brother). Brown shares the photos like images of old friends. “These are the dogs I have a soft spot for … the dogs nobody [else] wants to deal with.

The most difficult to give up was Tiger, a 3-year-old goofy brindle bull terrier mix, who would cuddle with her own dog, Athena. After an emotional struggle, Brown gave him to a local adopter. “We really wanted to adopt him, but I couldn’t—I couldn’t do that and continue doing what I do,” Brown says. “It’s real hard to see him [now] and know that he’s not mine. But I’m happy that he’s happy.”

Butler, who’s fostered more than 300 dogs for Oldies But Goodies, often several at a time, got some good advice when she was just starting in 2001. Butler’s daughter was 10 years old and her son was 12, and they were all having a hard time giving up the 8-year-old buff cocker spaniel they’d been fostering. But if they had kept the dog, it might have been the end of their fostering efforts. Butler’s mentor suggested that she throw a party. So the family celebrated. (It helped that her daughter had seen how happy the dog’s family-to-be was during a visit to their home.) They still have a party every time they adopt out a dog.

“There’s the dogs you’re going to cry over,” Butler says. “[But I know] if I hadn’t made the sacrifice, this dog that I love so much wouldn’t be alive.”

Meg Allison, who works for the ASPCA and fosters for the Louisiana SPCA, focuses on marketing the animals who come to stay with her. She’s developed a system that on average allows her to find an adopter in a week. Generally, Allison picks up her foster animal on a Thursday, dresses him in an “Adopt Me” vest and heads to Magazine Street in New Orleans, where she gives out the dog’s “business card.” Then she goes to meet a friend for a drink or meal, taking her foster along. Sometimes, she’s interrupted by a prospective adopter before she can even place her order.

The weekly happy hours and the trendy restaurant scene weren’t quite what Pamela Martin of Austin, Texas, was looking for when she took up fostering five years ago. Martin, now close to retirement, had just gotten divorced from her husband of 29 years, and wanted a new activity.

Martin heard about the foster program at Austin Pets Alive!, a private shelter working to end pet homelessness in the city. Drawing on her experience in occupational therapy, Martin soon began volunteering as a medical foster. She removed the table and chairs from her dining room and turned it into a foster room, placing dog crates and puppy playpens on the tile floor. Weekdays, she goes to her job, then stops by home during lunch so she can look after the one or two foster animals she always has. She also fits in walks for her three pet dogs, a 7-year-old dachshund, a 3-year-old “pit bull” mix and a 2-year-old Lab mix. The pit bull and Lab mixes are “foster failures,” but Martin has succeeded around 130 times.

One regular foster family deals with the departure of furry guests by holding a celebration whenever one finds a home.

“It’s so good to see them get well and want to play and be dogs again,” Martin says. “There is no reason for them to be put down, if it’s something they can overcome, if they can live the rest of their life with a family.”

On a recent weekday evening, Martin had just gotten home with Hufflepuff, her latest foster, a puppy who’s finished the treatment for parvo and tested negative. “[She] is the darlingest little fluff ball you’ve ever seen!” Martin says, as the 1.5-pound dog, who is still anemic, yips and yaps. “She’s going to perk up here pretty fast!” Within a month, the little dog was adopted, making room for a 1-year-old Chihuahua with an upper respiratory infection.

It is a different life for Martin than her former one, but a good life: rich and rewarding, full of camaraderie. The animals have needs that can be met, if only someone will step forward. There is a constant welcome. A constant embrace. A constant joy. A constant acceptance. And a constant letting go.

5 Things to Know About Fostering

  • For your first foster, you may want to ask for a less challenging animal. Talk to the organization about how long you are able to foster. You may be able to try out fostering by taking an animal home for a night, weekend or holiday.
  • Find out the organization’s policy on veterinary care. Many shelters and rescues will pay for it if you use their veterinarians.
  • Ask to be connected to other foster volunteers who can advise you.
  • It’s tax deductible! In 2011, the U.S. Tax Court ruled that foster providers can deduct the amounts they spend taking care of foster animals.

About the Author

Karen E. Lange