Foster Care: San Francisco SPCA

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.

The San Francisco SPCA fostered 1,024 animals, including 936 cats, in 2009. Vice President Dori Villalon says most of those fostered were kittens and nursing queens. The program is managed by Alison Lane, a fulltime paid foster care coordinator, and Laura Mullen, a part-time foster care veterinary assistant.

Recruiting/Retaining

We recruit foster care volunteers through our regular volunteer information sessions, our website and on-site fliers. Many fosters are referred by current volunteers, and our best recruiters are our foster parents. We make T-shirts foster parents can buy that have photos of foster animals and say, “Ask me how to become a foster parent.” We always have a booth at our events where foster parents can bring their foster kittens or puppies and talk to people about getting involved in fostering. We try to make the foster process as easy as possible with as much support as possible, including:

- Free pet food and medications for foster pets

- A 24-hour hotline that foster parents can call with medical questions

- Phone and email support from shelter staff with quick response time

- A Yahoo chat group where foster parents can share stories, photos and tips, and see an updated list of adoptions showing foster animals who have found permanent homes

- An annual foster party where we give out awards, highlight as many fosters as possible, celebrate the accomplishments of the last season and get ready for the next one

- Acknowledgment of different foster parents in weekly emails

Screening

All prospective foster parents are required to take a foster class before they are accepted. Because our foster coordinator teaches the class, she can get a good feel for people by seeing how well they listen and what kinds of questions they ask. We also have everyone fill out a questionnaire that helps us determine if they will be suitable foster parents. We do ask whether they are willing to have us come in for a home inspection, although we have never had to follow through on that.

Adoption

Many foster animals find homes while in foster care, and we encourage volunteers to work on direct placement. In order to reduce their shelter exposure, foster kittens are returned for spay/neuter on “Foster Fridays” so they are recovered and ready for adoption over the weekend.

Setting Limits

The limits on animals we set for foster volunteers are based on disease control more than anything else. We place animals into foster so our shelter isn’t compromised by overcrowding and the increased potential for illness transmission. Sending multiple litters to one home compromises the integrity of a foster care program and creates the exact problem we are trying to avoid. Once this concept is clearly explained, our volunteers understand that our decisions are not personal, but centered around the welfare of the animals we all want to help.

Compassion Fatigue

We have a monthly Pet Loss Support Group that fosters are welcome to attend, but we have not offered sessions specifically to foster volunteers. Our coordinators and shelter medicine team provide incredible personal support to our volunteers, and this makes a huge difference in keeping people feeling invested and optimistic.

Funding

We set volunteers up with everything they need, including a scale for regular weight management, food, litter box and litter. Funds come from our general funding and program-specific fundraising, such as our wildly popular foster care calendar, T-shirts and poster, all of which are created by our incredibly talented volunteers. We also continually post a wish list for baby food and supplies.

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