BY MELISSA BROWNRIGG
They are found in dumpsters or ditches. Many are sick, hurt, hungry, and require immediate care. But all of them share something in common: they need a safe home. According to the Humane Society’s website, 6,000 animal shelters in the U.S. take in between six and eight million dogs and cats each year. Only about three million will be reclaimed or find new owners.
Fostering is an alternative way to keep animals off the street and avoid overloading shelters. Instead of the animal staying in a crowded shelter, it has the opportunity to live full time in a loving home, where it can receive more personalized attention and care. The socialization that an animal receives is a key aspect in its recovery from a traumatic experience and finding a permanent owner. Generally, animals that need full-time attention include puppies or kittens that were taken away from their mothers too young, the injured or recovering, and the sick. These animals depend on that personalized care for survival.
Fostering a pet can range from a formal arrangement through a shelter to simply rescuing an animal off the street and providing temporary care. Each experience is valuable to a homeless animal, and sometimes life saving.
Fostering Through A Shelter
Chloe is an example of how fostering can save a life. Rescued from an Iowa City dumpster, the smoky-colored cat now lives with Janet Ashman, who is head of the Johnson County Humane Society, a non-profit group that organizes foster care givers. Despite her dumpster- diving days, Chloe has come to trust humans again and now loves being around people so much that she will fight to stay inside. She is just one of the many cats awaiting a loving and safe home through Ashman’s foster program.
Of the 34 cats Ashman keeps at her own house, 12 are permanent residents while the others are waiting for adoption or foster homes. Chloe, Mellow, Spook, and Gwenyth—each cat has a name, different personality, and possibly a health concern. As they swarm around her feet, Ashman bends down to award them her affection, stroking and talking to them.
Until July 2007, in-home foster pet care in Iowa was illegal. This didn’t stop Ashman and two other volunteers from rescuing homeless cats and kittens. After a call from the Department of Agriculture about her illegal fostering activities, Ashman, rather than giving up the animals, negotiated with officials to create a program that everyone agreed upon. Now, along with providing a clean and safe dwelling, foster parents must comply with a yearly inspection and keep the animals’ shots up to date.
In rural areas, where animal shelters are few and far between, abandoned pets have little chance of finding a home and are usually euthanized. After volunteering for a shelter 50 miles away, Debbie Haulk of Strawberry Point decided to fill the need for a shelter in her area and opened Northeast Iowa Pet Rescue in her home. At one time, Haulk had 18 animals (9 newborn puppies and 9 dogs) living in her shelter. Haulk offers local residents the option to give back to the community by fostering and also finds new owners for her animals through a website called Pet Finder (www.petfinder.com), where people from all over the United States can view pictures and profiles of homeless animals.
Fostering on Your Own
And then, of course, there are many instances in which kind folks informally foster animals on their own. North Liberty resident Jan Widmer, for example, cared for her neighbor’s Pekinese for eight weeks while the woman recovered from an injured back.
Although Widmer’s experience wasn’t typical, the 7-year-old dog, named Muffy, had been in a fostering program before. Muffy’s previous owner had used her for breeding, then lost interest and abused her when she could no longer reproduce. After leaving that violent environment, Muffy was fostered until she found a safe and loving owner.
Despite Muffy’s abusive past, Widmer found the Pekinese to be a sweet-spirited dog. The biggest problem she faced in fostering was introducing Muffy to her three dogs and maintaining peace amongst them. To overcome these obstacles, Widmer walked all the dogs together to establish a friendship among them while also maintaining her role as “pack leader.”
Homes are Needed
There’s a desperate need for more volunteers to provide temporary care for abandoned animals. Every shelter has different requirements. At Johnson County Humane Society, the process includes filling out an application, meeting with Ashman, and having a home inspection. Ashman, who feels this procedure shouldn’t deter a committed individual from fostering, says she has never rejected a serious applicant. “If you’re doing this because you’re committed, you’re probably already doing it right,” she says. Once the applicant has been approved, Ashman tries to pair the new foster parent with an animal that is “ready to roll”—one that isn’t sick, injured, or violent.
Volunteers often worry about the emotional toll of fostering animals. Although you can’t predict how attached you may become, there is always the option of adopting the foster pet, and Ashman confirms that there are many instances where this is the case.
Reap the Rewards
While fostering has the same responsibilities as owning a pet (walking, cleaning, feeding), it offers slightly different rewards. Providing temporary care for an animal can be a test drive to see if the pet’s personality is one you could live with long term. Typically, veterinary care and other health expenses are covered, so no expenses are incurred. Depending on the shelter, the food and toys might also be paid for.
Perhaps one of the most gratifying aspects of fostering a pet is watching it blossom under your loving care, knowing that you’ve given it the second chance at life that it deserved. And there’s nothing like getting sloppy kisses from a grateful rescue animal.
Fostering is a way to give back to your community while saving a life. To become a foster parent for a needy animal, check with your local shelter or veterinarian. Debbie Haulk offers this last plea to anyone who isn’t sure about getting involved: “I know a lot of people are hesitant, but we need foster homes for animals. That’s how [shelters] survive.”