Fostering shortages due to misconceptions result in the needless loss of many animal lives.
Every year millions of companion animals are killed simply because they have no place to live. Millions. Millions of cats and dogs killed by lethal injection, and in some states gas chambers, not as punishment for a crime, but because they are homeless. Many animals are young and healthy but are put to death anyway. The statistics are disturbing, but even more disturbing is that these deaths are totally preventable. One solution is foster care. Foster care is an integral part of the effort to save homeless animals from needless euthanasia and to find them permanent homes where they can live long and happy lives. However, not enough people are becoming fosters, and healthy animals continue dying every day. Broadway Barks reached out to several animal fosters to find out what fostering is all about and why it is so important to become an animal foster.
THE IMPACT OF ANIMAL FOSTERS
Princess, a two-year old Chihuahua mix, wore a pink collar with rhinestones when she was left at a city animal shelter because her family no longer wanted her. The shelter was crowded, and staff members worked constantly to ensure the animals had food, water, and clean kennels. Some of the kennels held multiple dogs, but Princess was scared of other dogs and needed her own kennel. After three weeks, Princess’s time ran out. Several dogs rescued from a hoarding situation were brought to the shelter, and Princess took up too much space. Princess was young, perfectly healthy, and a fairly popular dog in terms of size and breed, but she was killed by lethal injection in the early morning hours, before the shelter opened for the day—her pink collar tossed in a box with all the others. Later that week, a woman arrived at the shelter looking for a small dog to add to her family. Princess was a perfect fit, but unfortunately she was already dead.
Chester, a senior Beagle with skin allergies, found himself relegated to a cold run in the city shelter after he was picked up by animal control as a stray. After being at the shelter for twenty days, time was quickly running out. Chester was put on a euthanasia list, but then an animal foster rescued Chester and gave him a place to live temporarily. Chester was safe, and his departure from the city shelter provided space for another animal. The rescue group for whom the animal foster volunteered provided Chester with some veterinary care to address his skin allergies and gave him a much-needed check-up. The next weekend, with a clean bill of health, Chester’s foster took him to a local pet adoption event. Several families loved Chester, and applications for him flew in. Chester was adopted the next weekend, and his new life as “Buddy” began. What made the difference for Chester was a foster home. Without a foster, Chester may have met the same fate as Princess.
Sometimes it only takes a few days to find an animal a forever home and save it from being killed, but when a shelter is overcrowded this can still be too long. This is where fostering has the biggest impact. In big cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, many animals are killed before they can be matched with willing adopters due to the overwhelming volume of animals entering the shelters and the inefficiency of the systems used to match animals with adopters. This is what happened to Princess. Fosters give these animals a safe place to live temporarily until a permanent home is found. As Josh Blye, a five-time animal foster in NYC and blogger for That Touch of Pit, says, “At the root of it, fostering is important because it saves lives.” And when someone fosters an animal they are really saving two lives: the life they foster and the life that now has space in the shelter.
Fostering saves animal lives, but it also helps to reduce an animal’s stress, protect its health, and provide socialization, basic training, and an accurate temperament evaluation. A crowded and noisy shelter can make an animal feel threatened, and the psychological and physiological effects can be detrimental to their health. Animals that are housetrained and enter a shelter after living in a home may experience severe stress living and doing their “business” in a kennel. These animals are wonderful pets but do not do well in a shelter environment. Living in a foster home reduces the stress on the animal and allows the animal to relax.
Shelters are germy places where bacteria and illnesses like parvovirus and bordatella (kennel cough) can spread quickly. Injured, stressed, and young animals are especially vulnerable to these and other shelter diseases. Puppies and kittens with developing immune systems need time to respond to vaccines and build immunities, and animals recovering from illness or injuries need quiet rest and supervision they can’t get in an animal shelter. Shelters are also terrible places for birthing mothers since the loud, stressful environment can make it difficult for them to make milk for their young. Foster homes are cleaner and safer for all animals and are better environments for birthing mothers.
Animals at a shelter suffer from stress, isolation, and lack of socialization, which can cause them to develop fears that result in negative behaviors. In a foster home, animals become accustomed to the sights and sound of a home and are continually interacting with family members, visitors, and other pets, which helps the animals become more comfortable and enables them to overcome anxieties and behavioral issues.
Animals living in a shelter often get the bare minimum of food and water, with no time for extras like training. But in foster homes animals receive basic obedience training, which makes them more adoptable. By the time they are adopted, many foster animals have been housetrained and can sit, stay, and lie down—some even learn a few tricks! Fosters also get to know the animal and are able to share insight into the animal’s personality and temperament with potential adopters. As foster Kyle Young says, “Many adopters look for an animal that has been in foster care because they are usually trained, they are socialized, and the foster knows all the facets of the animal’s personality and behaviors.” Shelters often cannot provide such detailed evaluations either because they lack the time and manpower or because the animal is too stressed to behave normally.
WHO CAN BE A FOSTER?
Some people think only saints and superheroes with money can do such wonderful deeds, but any responsible adult can be a foster—no superhero cape is required. As foster Julie Kearns says, “Anyone with a passion for four-legged creatures can do it.” Many foster parents even work regular day jobs. Foster animals only need food, water, exercise, and a safe and comfortable place to live. They can be crated, or they can have a laundry or basement area, and the rescue group will usually do a home check to make sure the foster home is a safe environment. A foster can then choose what kind of animal they prefer to help. Some people prefer puppies, while others like older dogs. Some fosters specialize in aiding injured animals through recovery or taking in pregnant mothers and giving them a place to birth and wean their puppies. The options are limitless, and there are animals of every shape and size that need help.
Many fosters also provide basic obedience training, as well as socialization with people and other animals. Fosters are responsible for taking the animal to the veterinarian for medical appointments and getting the animal to adoption events so they can find a forever home. However, the commitment is not a financial one. Some people fear that fostering will require a substantial financial commitment, but this is untrue. Typically, the rescue group provides everything. As Josh Blye says, “The only financial burden is what you want to spend. The rescue organization will provide you with food, and they will pay for the animal’s medical care.”
WHAT FOSTERING IS AND IS NOT
Fostering misconceptions have led to a shortage of fosters and, thus, the needless loss of many animal lives. Beliefs that fostering animals is akin to fostering children, that fosters can be forced to keep the animal forever, or that fostering is a trial run for having a pet have distorted the true nature of fostering.
Some people equate animal fostering to the responsibility of fostering children. The concept is similar, but fostering children is by far a more challenging task. The developmental and psychological needs of a child require stability, expertise, and a long-term commitment on the part of the foster family. This is not so with animal foster care. Stability can be important, but most animals adjust quickly to new home surroundings, and their needs are much more basic than those of a child.
The animal fostering commitment can range from days to months, but fosters are never forced to keep an animal. Sometimes, animals recovering from illness or injury may require longer stays, but other animals already have dedicated fosters and only need a place to stay while their fosters are out of town. As Josh Blye puts it, “It is a commitment, but it is by no means permanent.” In fact, fostering provides an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of having a pet without the long-term commitment.
However, fostering is not a trial run for pet ownership. Some rescues and shelters will let a potential adopter take an animal home for a trial period, but that is not the purpose of fostering. False fostering actually creates a bigger problem because the shelter thinks it has a free space, so it fills that vacancy with another animal in need. If a false foster decides they no longer want a pet and they return the animal, the shelter has two animals for only one space available. If just a few fosters do this, the shelter can become so crowded that they will have to start euthanizing animals.
Sometimes a foster family falls in love and chooses to adopt their foster animal. When fostering leads to an adoption this is sometimes called a “foster fail.” Despite the negative connotation, it is wonderful to get a forever home for an animal. However, when a dedicated foster family chooses to adopt their foster animal, they lose space to foster another animal. Experienced foster Julie Kearns recommends, “Keep your eyes on the goal, which is to get the dogs adopted. You do forge a bond, but you have to remember that they are not your dog. You try to keep yourself somewhat distant, to not traumatize you or the animal.”
HOW DO I BECOME A FOSTER?
First, call the shelters and rescues in your area and tell them what you are willing and able to do. Maybe you only have space for small animals, or maybe you have a yard and can take several dogs. Decide if you want only puppies, young dogs, or older animals. Let them know if you are new to fostering and ask to take a short-term foster to get started. Puppies and kittens are usually in high demand, so fostering them will likely require a shorter time commitment—sometimes just a few days. Next, the shelter or rescue may require an application and an orientation or brief training session. This is helpful for first timers to determine if fostering is right for you. Finally, there will be a home visit. The shelter will determine if your home is safe for the animal, and they will help you “pet proof” your home. Once these steps are completed, you can take in your first foster and start saving lives. As a wise animal lover once said, “I saved one animal and it didn’t change the world, but it changed the world for that animal.”
By Charlene Sloan