Foster Care: Animal Welfare Association

The following is from the Summer 2010 issue of Protecting Animals, American Humane’s quarterly journal for animal welfare professionals. Used by permission. To learn more, visit www.AmericanHumane.org.

In 2009, the Animal Welfare Association (AWA) of Voorhees, NJ, fostered more than 1,400 cats, dogs and bunnies – a remarkable one out of every two animals that came to AWA. Most of the 1,400 were very small kittens and undersocialized kittens, but the shelter also does respite foster, including placing sick pets in foster homes and providing “foster hospice” for some older cats until they pass away. Says Executive Director Maya Richmond, “Our foster program definitely helps us save lives, because we only have one cat adoption room, one small treatment area and 30 dog runs. We saved 2,500-plus pets in 2009 only because we have been able to expand our capacity to care through the foster home network.”

For the past two years, volunteer Debbie Reindl has managed AWA’s foster program with the help of a volunteer assistant. Says Richmond, “I am truly amazed by all Debbie does! I’ve seen well-run foster programs under staff management, but I think this is the best program I’ve ever seen because of Debbie’s organization, passion, common sense and pure professionalism.”

Recruiting/Retaining

Our best method of recruiting new foster parents is through word-of-mouth from other dedicated foster parents. However, we also post on the community bulletin board of cable TV, provide an online application on our shelter website, and distribute brochures at veterinary clinics, pet stores, pet groomers, pet adoption events and other places animal lovers go. We retain fosters because we let them know they’ve made a very real contribution to helping solve a very real problem in this country. We also acknowledge exemplary foster parents at our “Spring Fling” dinner event.

Screening

The best applicants come recommended by another foster parent or are volunteers at the shelter. For other foster applicants, we get written permission to call for a reference from their veterinarian. We also have a detailed, lengthy phone conversation with each applicant, since allowing prospective foster parents to talk about their previous experience with pets and other organizations yields quite a bit of information. And in a relatively short time, it becomes evident how they care for their foster animals since all animals are seen at least biweekly by shelter staff.

Adoption

We encourage foster parents to be involved in finding loving homes for their foster animals, but they are in no way responsible for finding permanent homes for them. Generally once the foster period is over, the animals are returned to the shelter to be neutered and put up for adoption. Some foster animals, particularly adults, are advertised on the shelter’s website. Even though they are physically not in our building, we take applications for those animals and adopt them out once they return from foster care.

Setting Limits

We have no formal policy about the number of foster animals a foster parent can take. However, we are always aware of how many animals a foster has at any one time and monitor that information. In addition, experienced fosters are capable of handling more and/or sick animals better than others. Three kittens may be a lot of work for one foster parent, but be a piece of cake for another.

Compassion Fatigue

“Death of our foster animals is an unfortunate part of foster care,” says Reindl. “While it is more prevalent in the shelter environment, it is sometimes a foreign experience for the volunteer foster parent who may have only experienced it with his or her own pet. We try to stress that the death is not a result of the care the animal received, but is commonly due to the unknown background of most of our animals.”

Funding

Our foster parents provide all food, litter, bedding and toys necessary to properly care for the foster animals. On occasion, we have provided food and other items to good fosters whose finances are stretched temporarily due to unemployment or other circumstances. All veterinary care is provided by our shelter veterinarian and vet technicians.

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