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Providing A Home Between Homes For Shelter Animals: Volunteer Foster Families Save Lives

In Liisa and Shanti Shunn’s East Medford backyard, the couple’s three dogs—Dobby, Tucker, and Puck—leap and jump for the treats that Shanti offers. While these three dogs are permanent residents in the Shunn household, usually they share their home with foster dogs as well. In fact, Dobby is what Liisa and Shanti affectionately call a “foster failure”—a foster dog that they ended up adopting.

The Shunns are among the many Friends of the Animal Shelter foster families who provide a temporary “home between homes” for dogs, puppies, cats, and kittens prior to adoption from the Jackson County Animal Shelter. These families provide an invaluable service for the Shelter’s dogs and cats that saves hundreds of lives each year—especially during times like the spring and summer “kitten season,” when the Shelter is filled to capacity.

"We really feel that the kids need to learn how to contribute to the world in a positive way, and one of the ways we do that is by helping animals." - Jill Henry, Foster Mom

“We talk to people about fostering a lot,” says Liisa, a longtime volunteer with Friends of the Animal Shelter (FOTAS), a non-profit organization formed in 1991 to support the programs of the Jackson County Animal Shelter. “The biggest obstacle that people name—whether it’s cats or dogs—is ‘oh, I would keep them all.’ And, granted, we did fail once, and we kept him.” She points toward Dobby, who is sitting next to her in Shanti’s lap. But, she adds, “despite the pain in adopting a foster out—and there is, especially for dogs or cats that have stayed with you for weeks or months; trust me, they’re your babies, too—the reward is in knowing not only that you’ve helped to save one dog or cat’s life, but now you get to do it again and again. After you get high on that experience, you don’t want to keep them all—you really don’t. It’s just wonderful to have an extra dog over and over and over again.”

Another Friends of the Animal Shelter foster volunteer, Dee Wollter, shares the sofa with three of her own dogs as she recalls when she first began fostering. “Once I got into it, there was just no stopping,” says Dee, who has fostered both cats and dogs. “Bringing home a scared little dog and watching it blossom into a nice, sweet dog that needs a forever home, and finding the right home, and knowing the dog’s going to be happy—it’s a really good feeling.”

A few feet away, in the kitchen, a cat looks down from a bed on top of Dee’s fridge; another sleeps comfortably in a bed on the dryer in the laundry room, and still another has found a quiet napping spot on a well-padded shelf in a linen closet. While all of Dee’s cats have their designated napping spots, “they all come sleep with me on the bed at night,” Dee says.

While taking care of foster dogs and cats in addition to her own does require extra work and energy, Dee says that the FOTAS program makes it manageable. “I can call any time and get help or advice if I need it.”

Shanti agrees. “The nice thing about the foster network is that if you’re going away for a weekend, there’s almost always someone who’s willing to step up and cover for that period of time and take care of your foster.”

Dogs and cats need foster care for myriad reasons—some animals, for example, don’t do well in a shelter environment because they are frightened, need a little extra care, or simply need a break if they’ve been in the shelter for a while. One recent foster cat, Josie, ended up at the Jackson County Animal Shelter when her owner had to surrender her upon moving into an assisted living community that didn’t allow pets. Josie, a sweet calico who was bewildered and anxious to find herself in a crowded shelter, got overlooked by potential adoptive families for weeks—until she went to a foster home. One there, she relaxed, made herself right at home, and was adopted soon afterward.

Eliza and Brad Kauder, who have fostered more than ninety kittens over the past four years, are among the many FOTAS foster volunteer families who save lives. “We recently took in two three-week-old kittens when we learned they were unsocialized and not doing well in the Shelter,” Eliza says. “We named them Gary and Wendy, after our wonderful neighbors who visit with our kittens regularly. After fostering them for eight weeks, which included feeding, vaccinations provided by the Shelter, lots of socializing with our grown cats and large dogs, and interacting with neighborhood children, they became loving kitties. The Shelter paid to have them spayed and neutered, and they spent another week recovering in our home. They were adopted by a lovely young couple in Ashland who saw them at a community outreach event at Ace Hardware. The adoptive parents report they are ‘fun, happy, crazy kittens,’ and that they ‘are still named Wendy and Gary because they are such unique kitty names.’”

Because the Jackson County Animal Shelter spays and neuters all pets before adoption, foster homes are needed for puppies and kittens who need time to grow before their surgeries, as well as newborn animals that need to be nursed or bottle-fed. Other animals may need time to recover from an illness or injury before adoption—and when it comes to dogs, the younger ones often need help with basic training to make them more adoptable. 

Even for the busiest of families, fostering offers a wonderful way to volunteer in the community.

Foster volunteer Jill Henry and her family have fostered many motherless kittens who needed to be hand-fed, bathed, and socialized. “They thrived and were able to be adopted into good homes,” says Jill. “We love fostering the babies. The kids always comment about how lucky they feel to be able to have all these babies in the house and how much they love them. They become attached to each one, name them, and are sad when they leave, but they understand that we are just part of the process of helping these little ones find a good forever home. And, to temper the sadness, they know we will always be getting new babies!”

For Jill and her husband, Eric Guyer, and their children, twelve-year-old Sam and ten-year-old Sutton, fostering is a great way to teach life lessons as well as to share an amazing experience as a family. “We really feel that the kids need to learn how to contribute to the world in a positive way, and one of the ways we do that is by helping animals,” Jill says. “They help feed and care for the animals, clean the litter boxes, and really love them a lot. They have also learned about loss because some of the animals don’t make it. They learn about giving and fragility and caring; they always say they feel they are so lucky to foster animals. Fostering does put them face-to-face with some of the suffering and injustices in the world, but it allows them an opportunity to give love and support to those who are suffering.”

Even for the busiest of families, fostering offers a wonderful way to volunteer in the community: The hours are flexible, families foster in the comfort of their own homes, and they can share the joy and fun with friends and family. And for those who like to travel, fostering is the perfect way to enjoy time with animals at home while remaining free to travel between fosters. The overall benefits, Jill says, are many: “The energy it brings to our family. The enjoyment we get in watching the animals, grow, develop, play, and thrive. The lessons we learn in caring for each new litter, including patience, compassion, tenderness, joy, and giving. The fun we have in enjoying these kittens every day.”

For those with pets of their own, bringing fosters together with other animals in a household can be a wonderful experience for the shelter animals, and it can greatly enhance their adoptability. “We were foster failures the first time by keeping two of our first four foster kittens,” says Eliza. “However, we continued fostering immediately, with two puppies. Our new kittens bonded with the puppies and even taught them how to play with kitties nicely. It was a joy to watch.”

The Jackson County Animal Shelter and Friends of the Animal Shelter provide both supplies and financial support, and also cover medication and veterinarian visits if a foster pet becomes ill. For dogs, the shelter provides food, vaccinations, and worming and flea medication. For cats, the shelter provides litter, vaccinations, and worming and flea medication but is not always able to provide food—however, any unreimbursed expenses can be claimed as a charitable donation deduction. Jill Henry says, “The shelter is very supportive in giving us food, kitty litter, formula, beds, blankets, cat carriers or whatever we need to care for these guys.”

While foster families can help with adoptions by telling friends, family, and co-workers about their pets, the shelter and Friends of the Animal Shelter take full responsibility for finding the foster animals new homes. In addition, foster pets are invited to monthly community outreach events, where they’ll be seen by many potential adopters outside of the shelter environment.

Some people are reluctant to foster animals because they’re concerned that it’s unfair to take a dog or cat, establish a bond, and then allow the animal to be adopted out into another home—yet being in a foster home gives a dog or cat a chance to get used to life in a house with other animals or children, as well as an opportunity to learn that people can be kind, that food is available, and that there is a warm, safe and secure place to sleep. And there’s no shortage of animals that need this preparation time before finding their forever homes.

“When you adopt a dog—which is fantastic—you only get to help one dog,” says Liisa Shunn. “But when you foster, you get to help an infinite number of dogs.”

Families or individuals interested in fostering can visit the Friends of the Animal Shelter website at www.fotas.org/foster or call (541) 944-2021 to leave a message for Diane, the Foster Care Coordinator. Diane meets with potential foster families in their homes to provide advice on how to set up the environment for the best results, as well as to ensure that fostering is the right volunteer activity for every interested family.

“Our permanent pets have all gotten used to the fact that there will always be furry little things climbing all over them,” says Eliza. “Fostering is incredibly rewarding.  And, honestly, we love the pitter patter of little feet in the house! I don’t think we’ll ever stop fostering.”