As a rookie Foster Care Coordinator in a big urban shelter, I had one foster mom that was a godsend. She and her two young children would take home a rubber tub full of crawly, squirmy puppies, covered in chow and bring them back weeks later, shiny, socialized, and well on their way to adoption. "The bigger litters were better for her," she said. Magic words to my desperate ears. After caring for about 40 puppies in under a year, I could see she and the kids had a system. They’d feed the litter in the guest bath tub and clean everyone up on the spot. She had two little helpers, which made for more helping hands. She’d ask me to have puppies or kittens lined up for them to take as soon as she returned a healthy litter. She was not only their savior, but mine.
I don’t think she did it for the animals, so much as she did it for her kids. It was a fun lesson in compassion and community service that she could get her elementary school kids engaged in, right at home.
Learning life lessons while saving lives:
Giving: Kids of any age can appreciate helping homeless pets. It goes beyond teaching empathy to real selflessness.
Patience: Foster pets are the ultimate in patience stretchers, requiring everything from bottle feeding to obedience training. But, for kids, they’re a hands-on opportunity to learn that anything worth doing takes time.
Responsibility: I’m not advocating that all the care responsibility falls to the children. No way. But being in charge of the care and comfort of small creatures teaches maturity and accountability.
Academics: There are all sorts of academic lessons. Math is used in feeding, weighing and medicating animals. Children can journal the animals’ experiences to pass on to adopters. Foster parents find these opportunities are great for summer or holiday breaks when kids most need a project.
High school and college kids can potentially receive academic credit or community service hours for fostering. Occasionally, a dorm or house can collaboratively care for a short-term pet, while having a companion to help them through homesickness and study-time stress.
What’s involved in fostering?
Most animal welfare groups need fosters, whether it’s to care for orphans, rehabilitate sick or injured animals, or just free up a kennel.
Start by thinking about what sort of animal would be best suited to your family’s lifestyle. Do you want a healthy cat or dog that needs little more than a place to crash while you and the organization campaign to find it a home? Would your kids spend hours watching kittens play in your guest room?
Find a rescue group that meets your goals and attend an orientation. Most foster programs do group orientations or one-on-one interviews to help families prepare for their new foster friends.
Ask about what is expected of you. How long is the foster commitment likely to be? What will your out-of-pocket costs be? Will the animal need regular vet care and what are your responsibilities in that?
Ready a foster space. A warm laundry room, basement or guest room can offer luxurious respite for a pet that’s been on the streets or in an overcrowded shelter. All they really want is privacy and a soft bed. It’s probably easiest to house animals in an area that’s easily sanitized, at least until you’ve got any training or medical issues under control.
Have the talk with your kids about what fostering really means, right up front. They should know, before you ever step into a shelter, that these animals aren’t to keep, but that you’re helping them move on to their forever homes. Encourage your kids to share their fantasies about their short-term friend’s future life, to help them plan ahead for the good-byes.
Fostering is one of the most rewarding and bonding experiences a parent can have with their kids, making it not only a part of your daily routine but also a memorable part of their childhood.