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Fostering love: Families help strays become pets

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The three black puppies scampered across the wood floor, stumbling into one another and pushing forward in search of mischief.

Looking for toys, shoes or the family cat, Ghost, the dogs were trailed by their new foster parent, Jennie Springer. She herded them in a general direction and kept them from nipping at each other.

Springer and her husband, Randy, have served as pet foster parents for almost three years. The experience allows them to help house dogs until they can be adopted permanently.

“It’s the satisfaction you get. The animals love you, and I love showing them that affection,” Springer said.

Shelter Without Walls

What: A foster program that places stray or abandoned animals in temporary homes until a permanent solution can be found.

Who: The Humane Society of Johnson County

Where do the animals come from? Owner surrenders or from the local Johnson County Animal Control facility. Occasionally, the Humane Society assists other organizations with a puppy mill or hoarding rescue. All animals are checked for health and temperament before being placed in a foster home.

What is expected? Foster families must provide the animal with food, love, attention and perhaps a bit of training. All veterinary costs are covered by Humane Society through donations. Toys, treats and pet food or litter also is donated to help foster families. Families should bring the pets to the weekly pet adoption events to meet potential permanent homes.

How to help: Complete a foster application at hsjc.org/programs/foster-program, or call 535-6626.

For cats and dogs that otherwise would have nowhere else to go, foster homes are the animals’ last chance of survival. Concerned residents have opened their homes to provide food, water, shelter and affection until a permanent home can be found.

As more animals come to the Humane Society of Johnson County, a greater need is emerging for qualified foster families.

“It seems like we don’t have as many fosters as we used to. I think a lot of that is that foster families end up adopting their animals,” said Jennifer Underwood, animal manager for the Humane Society. “We found that animal a good home, but then we lost a foster home. When you foster, you can help more.”

The foster program, founded in 2005 and referred to as Shelter Without Walls, is a necessity for the Humane Society. Because the organization doesn’t have a permanent shelter where it can house animals, officials had to find an alternate way to prevent strays and abandoned pets from being turned away.

“This is the only way to save these dogs — to have people open their homes,” said Janet Gorrell, board president of the Humane Society of Johnson County.

Of the Humane Society’s 12 foster families, most have approached the organization about volunteering. Upon learning about the foster program, they offer to host a dog or cat for a few weeks.

The Springers started fostering in 2010 after their own dog died. They were grieving and didn’t want to commit to another dog at the time. They decided to start with kittens, taking in a few litters at first. The couple found the process therapeutic.

Once they had grieved and were ready, they started caring for dogs.

“You get an eclectic mix of so many different animals. One day, you have a bunch of puppies, and the next you might have a full-grown German shepherd who needs a place to stay,” Randy Springer said.

Their most recent batch were Orson, Oswald and Osborn — Manchester terrier mixes that they’ve had for about three weeks.

At the Humane Society’s twice-weekly adoption events, they’ll show the dogs off to families and individuals looking for a pet. They share about the animals’ habits, talk about what the dogs like and describe their behavior.

“People always ask, ‘How can you do it? Don’t you get attached?’ It’s not (hard to stay detached) when you think about it’s either you foster them or they don’t have a place to stay,” Jennie Springer said.

Underwood works with the volunteers to ensure the foster homes are the best fit for the pets. If the host is expecting long- or short-haired animals, declawed cats or high-energy dogs, she can make a match that both the pet and host families will enjoy.

When a dog or cat that fits a particular situation comes in or shows up at a local shelter, she can place the animal in the right home. The Humane Society works with the Johnson County Animal Shelter down the road to rescue cats or dogs that aren’t claimed.

“I can take dogs if I know I have someone who can foster them. Otherwise, I can’t do anything for them,” Underwood said. “We’re looking for as many foster homes as we can get. The more fosters we have, the more animals we can help.”

Stacey Cox and her family started fostering cats in 2007. She was doing some volunteer work for the Humane Society, sewing vests for the dogs, when she found out about the foster program.

Her daughter, Katie, was 13 at the time and had interest in becoming a veterinarian. She pushed for the family to sign up.

“We’re huge animals lovers, and we thought it was a way to give back and help animals out. And we enjoy them as well; we have a great time doing it,” Cox said.

Since that time, they have fostered about 300 cats. They converted part of the garage in their Franklin Township home into a cat room where their foster pets can be fed, sleep and play.

With so many animals coming in and out of their home, it’s difficult sometimes to not want to do more for the stray or abandoned cats that come to the Humane Society.

But the key is to remember that they can only do so much.

“My mom used to say, ‘We can’t do it all, but do what you can.’ That’s how we look at it. We have that written on the wall in the cats’ room,” Cox said.

Being a pet foster family requires a considerable commitment, Underwood said. Taking in a dog or cat means they caring for the animal until a permanent home is located.

The Humane Society pays for the animal’s medical care, including spaying and neutering. But foster families are responsible for food, litter boxes and other day-to-day expenses associated with owning a pet.

The Humane Society tries to help with those items as well, but that assistance isn’t always available, Underwood said.

Foster families also are expected to go through the volunteer training and learn about the pet adoption process.

“We want them to be familiar with the organization, as far as how we get animals in and how we care for them. Then when people ask about their animal, they can give accurate information about adoption,” Underwood said.

Sometimes, home checks are needed with new foster volunteers to make sure the home is suitable for a dog or cat. Cats have to remain indoor animals; dogs have more leeway, although they are supposed to primarily live indoors.

Having a fenced-in yard is also an advantage, particularly with certain types of larger dog breeds, Underwood said.

Many times, foster families end up taking in more than one animal at a time.

Underwood is a regular foster home, currently hosting three animals waiting for more permanent arrangements.

“Some of them, it’s hard to see go. They need you a little bit more, they need more affection or more training,” she said. “Others, they can’t get adopted fast enough.”

The Humane Society of Johnson County plans to renovate its headquarters to include a shelter. But the project is in its earliest phases, and the need keeps growing for foster families, Underwood said.

Over the past year, more animals are coming to the Humane Society, she said. Owners who are moving and can’t bring an animal with them or who no longer can afford to feed a pet have been surrendering their animals.

The organization also keeps some funds to help people who can’t afford veterinary bills. A pet food pantry also provides for the cost of pet food.

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