Caring for Creatures Great and Small

By Gina Habermeyer

Have your children been asking over and over for a puppy or kitten? Not sure if your family is ready for the additional responsibility of a cat or dog, which lasts the pet's life span? If you answered yes, perhaps becoming a pet foster parent is the right solution. Fostering animals provides a great way for kids to learn about and care for pets. Your children take part in community service. Fostering may encourage many other areas of positive growth and development.

I became a foster mom for the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA this past spring. On March 30, 2002, my family received our first foster pets, four adorable and very lively puppies. These bundles of energy provided us with hours of fun and entertainment over spring break. Eleven soft and frisky kittens followed the puppies. They arrived in two batches of fours, a set of two and a single kitten--lost and looking for love. Our most recent fostering was for one sweet momma lop-eared rabbit and her six babies. My 5-year-old twins are elated with each furry arrival.

I was hesitant at first to bring cute baby animals into my home temporarily, fearing endless requests to adopt them. I dreaded seeing long faces and tears when it came time to return the animals to the shelter for adoption. However, after a few conversations with my children about the life cycles of kittens and puppies and how they grow into cats and dogs, they seemed OK about returning the babies so they could be adopted by families that would love and care for them permanently. Knowing they may have other opportunities to care for another soft baby animal helped ease separation anxiety. The great support the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA provided was an immense comfort. They answered all my questions and concerns.

Our primary job has been to provide a safe place for the foster animals, caring for and socializing them until they are old enough, in good health and weigh enough (two pounds for kittens) to be released for adoption. The foster animals have stayed with us anywhere from two weeks (for the puppies) to seven weeks (for the momma rabbit and her babies). The foster program is extremely flexible with my schedule. Volunteers don't need vet experience or training to fostering animals. The foster program provides all medical expertise and any required medical treatment, in addition to supplies and food, if desired. The foster animals chosen were selected to meet our current fostering ability. Young small animals work best because we have little children.

My family has gained more insight into animal behavior and habitats through fostering. We were all awed to learn that the soft fluffy black nest containing six precious baby bunnies was made by the momma rabbit out of her own fur. We human moms sometimes wait a few years after birth to start pulling out our hair! We watched six baby bunnies grow from the time we received them at only two days old as tiny, hairless infants until they were seven weeks old. Their growth rate was so fast it provided almost daily visible changes. After their fur appeared, we looked forward eagerly to their eyes opening. On that day, we couldn't stop smiling. After a few short weeks, we found that the word “cute” cannot begin to describe what six tiny hopping bunnies look like in your living room. “Litter box trained” by momma rabbit are three great words to experience, too!

Fostering pets may present you with a few minor challenges to overcome. Our first litter of foster kittens was extremely timid and more used to hiding in very small places than they were to humans. I didn't know about a very tiny opening under my bathroom sink cabinet that two kittens discovered on the first day. I tried unsuccessfully throughout the day to coax them from behind the cabinet in order to close the opening before they could rush back into their hiding place. Several times they ventured out, but as soon as they saw me, they raced back into their hiding place before I had a chance to close it off. Thankfully, my clever (and very handsome--he just wanted me to mention that) husband devised a plan to catch the kittens using a broom and the old baby monitor. Patiently, my husband waited out of view and listened until he heard them lapping water from the bowl placed outside the cabinet. Swiftly, while the kittens were distracted at the water bowl, he moved the broom to close off the cabinet opening. I gathered up the kittens (Whew!)

In addition to my own personal satisfaction from community service, our foster pet experience has provided much joy to my family. My son especially likes to name the foster animals. One litter of kittens was fondly known as Cherry, Blackberry, Blueberry and Scaredy. Cherry, the smallest, is often fondly remembered. Our family photo taken this past Thanksgiving includes our last foster kitten, Brown Kitty, held by my niece. My daughter enjoys spending quiet time alone with the kittens (and maybe away from her twin brother), playing with them and their cat toys, or just holding them on her lap. She also enjoys helping with their care, and not having a nose as sensitive as her brother’s, she even helps with cleanup. My daughter and son excitedly tell their friends about our new temporary pets. They even brought foster pet photos a few times for their preschool sharing item of the week. They are joyful when they learn that the animals have found permanent homes.

The foster pet program encouraged my children to learn and grow in many positive ways. They have learned about animal adoption and why animals are at shelters. They are more aware now of the responsibility of pet ownership and the daily time commitment--Mommy’s and theirs--required to care for pets. Because of our fostering experiences, animal shelter trips now take on deeper meaning. My daughter and son have developed empathy for cats, dogs and small furry creatures waiting for adoption. They are very curious about why an animal was left at the shelter, or they want to know where it was found. They are delighted when they see a special form on an animal’s cage, which means someone has expressed interested in its adoption. Also, now if they see a stray animal, they ask if we can bring it to the SPCA so that it can be adopted.

If you have room in your heart and home and bathroom that you would like to share with an animal on a temporary basis, a foster pet program may be rewarding. It can be a lot of cleanup, it can be emotional and it can be memorable. The animals need to be returned. My current program has saved more than 400 animal lives each year for the past two years. These animals could not have survived in a shelter environment. They are returned after your fostering and socialization with your children and have a chance at quicker adoption because of your care. The animals become part of your family for a short time. We become attached, but know that another family will love them very much too and will care for them for a very long time. We are glad that we have nurtured the animals and made them feel safe, comfortable and happy. They are now ready to become part of a permanent family.

Gina enjoys planting flower gardens with her husband and two children in North Garden. They’re adding a row of catnip to the wildflower bed this year.

To learn more about animal foster programs, contact:

Animal Connections

Caring for Creatures

Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA

Hazen’s Haven for Small Dogs

Local Pet Link Collection

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