Fosters for local animal rescue groups save pets’ lives

August 1, 2016

DURHAM, N.C. — Chloe, a white pit bull with big ears, had one of the worst starts to life a dog can have.

She’d been chained in a yard, and her first owners never changed the collar. Chloe grew, and by the time she ended up in the Wake County Animal Center (WCAC), the collar was embedded in her neck and her head was swollen horribly.

Luckily for Chloe, she ended up in Lauren Carberry’s house, and a bleak story took a bright turn.

"She came to me as a cruelty case," says Carberry. "We had her probably four or five months to recuperate, and now she’s actually a service dog."

Today, Chloe has been trained to respond to panic attacks and hypoglycemia, and she goes everywhere — airplanes included — with her owner, wearing the pink vest that denotes her special job.

She owes this turnaround to the practice of animal fostering, which Carberry and her boyfriend Jason Coffman do out of their Durham home. Like any foster home, their place is an extension of the shelter. Other rescue organizations, some of which have no physical address or central location, rely exclusively on foster homes.

Rescue groups desperately need fosters like Carberry — people emotionally invested enough to welcome a string of animals into their homes, yet rational enough to let them go when it’s time.

For animals like Chloe, it’s about the best chance they’ll get.


"If you adopt, you save one animal’s life," says Jill Walters. "If you foster, you can save hundreds."

Walters wears many hats at Alley Cats and Angels: she’s the foster coordinator, medical coordinator, vice president and webmaster for the Triangle-based, all-foster cat rescue organization, which has rehabilitated and adopted out hundreds of cats in its eight-year existence. Some of them, including Walters’ own cat, started their lives in feral colonies.

Without an organization like Alley Cats and Angels, Dexter faced a dire future — a short, scrappy life behind a mechanic’s shop just outside downtown Raleigh. Yet this rescue group takes in cats domestic and feral, provides veterinary care and socializes the animals by rotating them among foster homes. The more reliable fosters the organization has, the more cats they can help.

"My ideal foster family can follow instructions, does not need to be hand-held much past the new stage," says Joanne Duda, foster coordinator at WCAC. "I have fantastic foster parents. I never hear from them unless something’s bleeding."


Like Walters, Duda knows that fostering is a numbers game: Last year, WCAC fostered 900 kittens; by June of this year, it was already nearing 600. Duda fostered before she took the job, so she gets the emotional attachment, but she also knows exactly how many kittens die for every one that’s kept by a foster family instead of adopted out. As a government regulated shelter, WCAC simply cannot turn away animals.

Fostering is a Band-Aid, Duda says matter-of-factly. Hers is a tough job, requiring empathy and hope in the face of an unending flood of unwanted animals, but she’s tough: before her WCAC position, Duda was a sergeant at Central Prison in Raleigh, where she worked 14 years.

"I live for the day I do not have to come to work anymore," she says. "We’re seen as the bad guys, as the killers, but we can’t euthanize animals that aren’t brought to us." So she takes the ones she can — everything from cats and dogs and livestock to rats, rabbits, reptiles and even a capybara (a really big rodent), once — and puts them in foster homes. That frees room on the adoption floor.


When it comes to dog fosters, Duda needs people who, like her, have no problem being the alpha. Most of the dogs in the foster program, after all, are basically overgrown puppies: they were never properly socialized, Carberry says, and are adult-sized but with no manners.

"Once they know that you’re the alpha and you have enough assertion in your tone, it’s a lot easier training," Carberry says.

She speaks comfortably and confidently, as if drawing on a lifetime with dogs, yet she’s never had one of her own — just the 15 dogs she fostered in the past year and a half. Carberry admits she’ll "foster fail" one day — the term for adopting one of your foster pets — but her plan is to socialize, train and adopt out as many dogs as she can until then.


Sandra Cyr is another of Duda’s fosters and she thinks similarly: she can help one cat for 15 years or 15 cats every year, Cyr says. For her, it’s a family affair: in the house are Cyr, her husband and two little girls, who are 2 and 4 years old. There’s one permanent cat and one WCAC foster at any given moment.

Cyr’s husband prefers the adult cats, but summer is kitten season: as of late June, Duda said, 227 of the 312 animals in foster homes were kittens. So Cyr alternates between adults and babies.

"It’s hard," she says. "Kittens die."

Cats are naturally incestuous, Duda says, and the kittens that come in, particularly those born to strays or feral cats, can be riddled with bad genes or diseases. Some of them simply don’t make it, even in a foster home. She needs people whose love of animals is unbreakable. She needs people as simultaneously tough and sensitive as she is.

"It sounds trite, but honestly, they were loved," says Cyr, thinking about the foster kittens she’s lost this way. "They didn’t die in a cage. You gave them the best place that they could have and you did the best that you could."

Both WCAC and Alley Cats and Angels have closed Facebook groups, specifically as support groups for their fosters: Cyr, Carberry, Duda and Walters all said such forums are essential to foster families’ mental well-being. And, as Cyr is sure to point out, there are more success stories than horror stories by far.


There are stories like Chester’s. The cat was old and severely underweight when he came to Cyr’s house. Then, after a checkup, Cyr was told Chester was in renal failure. The news hit Cyr hard — one of her personal cats had just died of renal failure and she was not prepared for a hospice foster. Yet they went with it.

"It’s better that he dies at home with us than in a cage," her husband said.

Chester was a sweet, people-loving cat — and his story ended well. At his next appointment, the vet determined that his levels were high, but not critical: he was merely on the verge of serious medical issues. Soon after, he was adopted by a man who preferred senior cats with health problems, and voila – Chester got a second shot. Plus, his adoption opened a slot at Cyr’s house for whichever cat came next.

"You are going to help them by giving them a place to crash for a couple of weeks," says Walters.


If you’re interested in fostering, reach out to your favorite local rescue group and learn about their needs. Here are some things about fostering to keep in mind.

Pay attention: "Your job as a foster parent is to learn what their personalities are and market them," says WCAC foster coordinator Joanne Duda. The animals you foster are more likely to get adopted — and to get adopted by the right people — if you understand their personalities. Beyond that, you need to look out for health problems, particularly in kittens. "We need to make sure that they are eating, that they are putting on weight, that they don’t have ringworm, that they don’t have what we call ‘wonky eyes,’" says Jill Walters of Alley Cats and Angels. If you see something like this, tell your foster coordinator.

Don’t overburden yourself: Or, ultimately, don’t be a hoarder. You aren’t helping if you have more animals in your house than you can reasonably feed or care for — in fact, this can exacerbate the problem. "The sickest ones that we see, and the scariest, are the cats that come out of people’s homes — particularly the hoarders," says Walters.

Put in the work: Fostering is fulfilling, but it isn’t easy, so don’t be picky and be prepared to work. "When you think of a shelter animal, the first thing coming to your mind should not be, ‘It has to be house trained or I won’t take it,’" Duda says. "The reason we need you to do this is because someone else didn’t take care of this." Also, there are already more than enough people willing to foster small, hypoallergenic dogs: come willing to foster a 50-pound or heavier bully breed dog and you’ll be of more use.

Foster at college: Fostering may be a good fit for college students with pets at home, Walters says. The short-term nature of fostering can work out quite well for people who don’t live in the area full-time.

Don’t be part of the problem: Honestly, just spay or neuter your pets.



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