Foster Caregivers are Critical to
San Diego Humane Society’s Mission
Written by Stephanie Thompson
A cute, shy pit bull mix sits at San Diego Humane Society for weeks. When visitors come, he stays in the corner of his enclosure, looking nervous. To give him a break and bring him out of his shell, he’s sent for a weeklong “vacation” at a foster caregiver’s home. The foster family emails SDHS photos of him enjoying playtime in the yard and snuggling on the couch with the kids, which are then posted alongside his info on sdhumane.org. Less than a week after he returns to campus, he’s adopted.
A man taking out his garbage hears a tiny meow. In a nearby alley, he finds five kittens, just a few hours old, and no mother cat in sight. He puts them in a box and drives them to SDHS. It’s kitten season, so the Kitten Nursery is full, but a foster caregiver agrees to take them. Without the feedings, warmth and grooming their mother would normally provide, they wouldn’t survive, so the caregiver gets up every two to four hours to feed them. Seven weeks later they are healthy, playing, eating and using the litter box on their own. Then they’re returned to SDHS for vaccinations and to be spayed or neutered, and are quickly adopted into loving families. The foster caregiver has already accepted her next litter to continue to help even more orphaned kittens in need of 24-hour care.
These are just two examples of how volunteer foster caregivers play crucial roles at San Diego Humane Society. “Foster caregivers are really like another campus for us, an extension of our space,” says Ben
Campos, foster supervisor. “We would not be able to help nearly as many animals in need without them. It’s as simple as that.”
Foster caregivers volunteer to take pets into their homes for a limited amount of time until they can be returned to the campus for placement. They can take in litters of kittens or puppies as well as adult animals, some of whom have specific medical or behavioral needs. Some are sent to a foster home for just a week or two, while others stay longer.
“Some animals act differently in homes than they do in shelters,” Campos says. “It gives our volunteers time to hang out with them and get to know them. Sometimes they are transformed by the experience, developing social skills and becoming less nervous. Prospective adopters also like to know what the pet is like in a home situation.”
SDHS currently has nearly 1,000 foster care volunteers on its roster, and 735 of them were active in fiscal year 2016–17. Those volunteers cared for 3,995 animals during that time period—over 3,000 of which were kittens.
“The largest need we have is for kitten fosters, especially right after they’re born,” says Alyson Wright, a foster specialist. “We think that’s because there are many stray or feral cats in San Diego, and thanks to our climate, cats here breed pretty much year-round. Our kitten season is mid-March through the end of November. Although we have a Kitten Nursery, it fills up quickly.” The Kitten Nursery cares for thousands of kittens every year, and before it was established in 2009, many very young kittens were euthanized because there weren’t enough resources to care for them.
Kitten caregivers usually take a litter at 4 weeks old and must feed and stimulate them, keep them warm, groom them and socialize with them. The goal is to get them up to two pounds, which is usually achievable by 7 or 8 weeks. Then they’re returned to SDHS for additional vaccinations and sterilization before adoption.
The Kitten Nursery is staffed 24/7, so it focuses mostly on the 0-to-4-week-old kittens who need round-the-clock feedings. Because it’s an open-admission facility, it’s always in need of more volunteers to care for the youngest animals—no kitten who needs help is ever turned away.
Karen Williams, one of the go-to foster moms for newborn kittens, has been a volunteer for nearly 20 years. She’s lost count of how many kittens she has taken care of in her Santee home. “As soon as I hold a kitten, it’s instant love,” she says. “At first I wasn’t sure how I could give them up after caring for them. But it makes me feel good to make a difference in their lives, and it’s become my passion. I trust San Diego Humane Society to find them good homes once they leave mine.”
Williams has a special room in her home for her wards. When a new litter comes in, her days follow a pattern of feeding, stimulating, grooming and playtime. “It’s not always easy, but it’s fun and rewarding. They depend on you; they get to know you. It’s sweet when they recognize your scent and come to you.”
Sheri Easton began volunteering in 2015 and became a kitten foster mom in 2016. She found she had a knack for bottle feeding. “The best part is when they start to notice who I am. I take the place of their momma; they recognize my voice and start to snuggle with me. It was hard to give them up at first—I even kept photos of the first ones I had! But it’s reassuring to know they’re moving on to a great new life.”
Volunteers apply via sdhumane.org and must meet a few basic requirements. SDHS provides training and support, and everything needed to care for foster animals, like bowls, bedding, toys, crates, food, litter, medication and veterinary care.
Dianne Berg, another longtime foster caregiver, has had kittens and puppies as well as older dogs with medical or socialization issues. “I look at it this way: If you don’t foster them, they don’t have a chance,” she says. “You can get attached, but you have to be practical. We are there for a purpose: to provide the human touch, and to open up space at SDHS. When it’s time, you have to take a deep breath and let them go—and besides, more are always coming!”
Not only do foster caregivers provide a home for pets in need and increase their chances of adoption, their households also enjoy spending quality time with different pets without the long-term commitment, and at no cost. That’s the flip side of having to return them.
Sometimes caregivers just can’t let go, though. There are sometimes “foster failures”—cats or dogs whom they just couldn’t bear to part with, for one reason or another. Berg took in an older dog who was so afraid of human touch that it took a full year for him to become comfortable around her. Williams’s pets currently include two cats who are partially paralyzed and need medication and specialized care. “They’re my babies. My special ones.”
If a prospective adopter sees a fostered pet they like on the website, SDHS can set up a visit. Staff also use social media to get the word out. Take Pip, for example, a 7-year-old pit bull mix. A sweet girl with dog reactivity issues, Pip was fostered by Sandy Isaacson for over a year. Isaacson posted photos and videos of Pip being adorable and friendly on Instagram, under the handle pippipparade, to improve her chances of finding a home.
Pip had some minor health issues that have cleared up (she still needs eye drops every day), but mainly she just didn’t have “good kennel presence.”
“She’s fine with people, but reacts strongly to other dogs,” explains Isaacson. “She’s not aggressive, but she gets super excited and overstimulated.”
“The main thing you need to foster dogs is patience; especially with dogs like Pip, who bring some baggage through no fault of their own,” she adds. Fostering Pip for a whole year showed her what a great pet she could be for the right household. “She can be pretty silly! She does this little tap dance when she’s excited. She’s done things that just crack me up, like roll over and fall off the couch. She’s so different at home than she is at the shelter, and that’s hard to show the world,” Isaacson says.
Although Isaacson loved having Pip in her home, which freed up shelter space for other animals in need, her efforts on social media paid off. Pip was adopted in February. Isaacson was elated. “I just wanted her to be happy.”