Attraction is often a mystery to the unaffected. Take Amy Weeden and her daughter Shelby. Earlier this year, they met and fell in love with an 11-year-old, one-eyed, blind and nearly deaf Chihuahua with a back end shriveled up from lack of use. Her name was Estella. She could barely stand, let alone go outside to potty. She had chronic renal failure. She ate little and only when fed by hand. She would not have lasted long in a shelter; she certainly would not have been easy to find a home for. The Weedens, however, were not deterred by Estella's condition. They had three other senior rescue dogs at home—a pair of graying Dachshunds named Otto and Kisses, and El Capitan, another Chihuahua roughly the same age as Estella—and knew what was possible with love and patient care.
It was a one-in-a-million match.
The Weedens had found Estella through a search on Petfinder.com and traveled 100 miles to meet the tan charmer in the Lafayette, Calif., living room of the Goldlist family. As part of a school community-service project, Jay and Maureen and daughters Ashley, Haley and Shayla were fostering Estella and Estella's seven-year-old son Pip for Muttville, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to senior dog rescue.
Unlike their Great Expectations namesakes, our Pip and Estella both found happiness. Nowadays, Estella takes regular two-mile strolls. She is playful and well nourished, and her kidney problem is under control. She snores at night. Pip, for his part, is now a permanent member of the Goldlist household. After he ran away from an adopter twice, presumably to find his way back to the Goldlists, the family decided resistance was futile. And they still foster; their current Muttville charge is another elderly Chihuahua, an amiable gentleman named Clyde.
This Dickensian happy ending would have been implausible if the people involved had subscribed to the prevailing notion about fostering: It is too painful. In this respect, fostering animals is a lot like mountain climbing. Everyone agrees it is a noble pursuit—just not something to consider doing oneself. Surely it takes extraordinary courage and strength of character? Yes, opening your home and your heart to a dog only to part with him again weeks or months later can be emotionally bruising. But the willingness of foster volunteers to love and let go brings about an awful lot of good. Without foster homes, Muttville and thousands of similar organizations could not function.
In fact, some in the rescue world see fostering as the way to a future where shelters are largely redundant. Eileen Bouressa is the executive director of Animal Compassion Network (ACN), an animal welfare organization in western North Carolina that has adopted out over 10,000 animals since its inception in 1997. ACN's rescue activities are built around a network of foster volunteers.
"Fostering keeps animals out of shelters where communicable diseases can be common, especially for stressed pets," Bouressa says. "And housing dogs in private homes makes for happy, well-adjusted animals who make an easier transition into an adoptive home than they would coming straight out of a facility."
ACN has two types of foster homes, Emergency Fosters and Public Partners. The first are ACN volunteers who take in animals pulled from shelters and other desperate situations (death of an owner, abuse) until a new home can be found. The Public Partner Program is for people who need to re-home their own pet or a stray they have rescued so they can avoid surrendering the dog to a shelter. ACN pays for spay/neuter, testing, vaccinations, microchipping, deworming, flea and heartworm prevention, and food and supplies, and offers help to find a new home.
"We have room for 70 dogs in the network," says Bouressa. "Of those, 20 are Emergency Fosters, the rest Public Partners. Though in a crisis situation, we remove the limits from our Emergency Foster Program. We took in 113 cats and dogs after Hurricane Katrina, and they all became Emergency Fosters in addition to the 40 already in the program."