I would like to be so kind to myself as to say I was a recent foster failure. But I’m not sure I can even call myself a foster in the traditional sense. Meaning, I intended to let a dog crash on my couch temporarily, providing for all his needs, while earnestly looking for a perfect forever home for him. And let me begin by saying I have mad, mad respect for all you real fosters out there who are able to welcome into your home a wonderful dog in need, send them off to adoption events and joyfully announce (through tears) their happy new beginning in their new home, then begin the process again with another dog in need. Without you, without these compassionate fosters, so many dogs would not have a chance. Letting them live in a loving home environment so you can provide a full A&E biography of the dogs quirks and behaviors for potential adopters is saving lives. Period.
That, clearly, is not in my wheelhouse. I am not capable. I am ill-equiped for foster-hood. I seem to fall in love with every dog I meet. Like a school girl penning my name + my most recent crush in a heart with an arrow in the back of my three-ringed binder, I envision my life as the caregiver of so many dogs I meet. As a kid I never owned a doll. I had zero interest in cradling a pretend baby in my arms, feeding it a plastic bottle. I never owned or would have been caught dead playing with Barbies. There was nothing less interesting to me than dressing up that skinny, lanky girl with the lifeless eyes and perfect pouty lips. But my bed was covered in stuffed animals, each one named, with a back story, a personality and treated as a member of my family. My Dad used to call them my menagerie as he tucked me in at night, each perfect, fluffy animal lined up around my pillow and down the side of my bed along the wall. Heaven. But I digress.
As an adult with 5 dogs, (the 5th being my first foster failure) I am thrilled to be part of my local rescue community, as well as connected with so many fellow animal lovers and rescue groups nationwide. I’m not quite sure what happened to my senses, or any semblance of good judgement, but when I visited the Broward Animal Care and Adoption center in December to drop off an SUV-load of donations – FILLED to the BRIM – I must have become void of my own self awareness. I actually agreed to the kind offer of the shelter manager when she asked me if I’d like a tour of the facility. (insert sigh and gasp here)
Yes, I did it. I not only went back to the adoption area of a municipal shelter with a 60% kill rate, during the holiday season, but I saw where the proverbial sausage was made. I saw the intake area, the stray holding area, the “tiny kittens in need of foster” area, the feral cat area, and I saw the dogs and cats recently spayed and neutered, recovering through glassy eyes on a balled up blanket of the cement floor or wire cage of their enclosure. I learned that I was not allowed to touch or pet any of the animals in the stray holding area because they had not yet been temperament tested. I learned that none of the dogs are allowed to have toys because they fight over them. I saw row after row of pit bulls, small chihuahuas, some with health issues. In the adoption area, rows of the some of the nicest, friendliest, most wonderful dogs you could ever dream of. Three to a cage. All waiting for a chance to be adopted. Needless to say, I was sufficiently traumatized by this experience and I’m not sure I will ever fully recover.
Again, mad, mad respect for the volunteers who work at the shelter. I simply could not do it. Have you ever seen those images of the before and after meth addicts? I feel like that would be me after a month of working at a municipal shelter. I would be this unrecognizable, haggered, unkempt, shadow of my former self from the torment of emotion.
While enduring the tour, through a sea of wet noses and hopeful eyes, a little face of a little dog reached out and grabbed my attention like a lightening bolt from the sky. A small, lanky, underweight, brown, white and tan tri-color Rat Terrier with a nubby tail and such optimism in his eyes it broke my heart into a million pieces. He was listed as urgent. Ugh. He had come in as a stray on November 9th. (I had just come from the awful stray holding area. To think of him in there for 10 days waiting to be claimed was like a kick in the stomach.) It was now December 18th. “Out of time.” “Such a nice dog.” “Keeps getting passed over” “Great with other dogs.” These were the phrases floating in the air around me from the shelter volunteer and manager giving me the tour. I was now holding “Ritz” the name given to him at the shelter. To say he was sweet was an understatement. His lanky long back legs hung down as I held him up to my face, kissing him and petting him close to me. One arm held his body, the other hand I placed under his adorable feet. I will never forget the look of his silly long legs and the feel of his yummy cheek against mine. I actually looked him in the eyes and said “I am not going to let you die here.”
I was his only hope. I was now invested in this little 13 lb. dog listed as urgent.
I have five dogs already, I have to be fair to them. I can’t just add more dogs to my pack every time I see a dog in need. There are too many. But that face. What can I do? I have to find him a foster. I have to get a rescue to pull him.
Leaving him behind in the shelter, tears in my eyes, my heart broken…I got home and started emailing, posting, texting, calling, networking for anyone and everyone who could help. Please can someone foster this guy? All day the following day, please can someone foster?
I called the shelter and found out that he was scheduled to be killed Sunday at 4pm. It was Thursday. My heart sank. The lump in my throat was choking me.
Finally, a foster home. Not ideal, she already had 2 other fosters, plus her own dog. She works during the day and the dogs are crated. A wonderfully kind and amazing woman opening up her home to help Ritz. Ok. Whew. Scrambling, please email the shelter to put the rescue hold…confirming the hold, please take him off the euth list. Please don’t let anything happen to him. An emotional roller coaster ride for 2 days.
Saturday morning I was back at the shelter five minutes before they opened. Still licking my wounds from the tour, this time I stayed in the lobby. This was no walk in the park…while standing there I saw 3 stray dogs being dropped off. Scared, confused, adorable dogs just beginning their journey into this place. I can’t take anymore. I squat down to pet them and say its gonna be okay. But is it? I have to focus on Ritz.
Finally…the big gray door opens and out he comes. Lanky, skinny, optimistic and adorable, he walks by me in the confusion of all the people. I scoop him up and hug him, his ears go back, a little smile, maybe he remembers me. Now I’m crying. scrunched up face, smiling, happy, relieved, teary eyed, I hold him tight. I hug the shelter volunteer who brought him out to me. I put on his new harness and collar. My friend who drove with me to the shelter meets Ritz, takes pics and videos to capture the moment. I walk him through the lobby like a king that he is. He sits on my lap licking my face, snuggling against me, watching out the window as we drive. His freedom ride. I’m getting attached with every minute that passes. Okay, he’s safe. He out. He’s alive. He has a chance. Whew. We did it. Keep your head on straight, let’s get him to the foster home. That was the plan.
I set up his crate. (heart sinking) I drop off the treats and toys and bed I got him. I ask for updates. He’s in a nice home with other small dogs who are being nice to him. He’s out of the shelter.
I leave. By that evening I cannot stop crying. Sobbing. My friend laughs, what on Earth is wrong? “I just abandoned him. I let him bond to me for an hour in the car, then I dropped him off and left him. Like I didn’t even care.” I say through my sobs and nose blowing.
“You saved his life!” My friend says, smiling and patting me on the back.
“But then I abandoned him.”
Sigh. “Under no circumstances are you to go back into that shelter or any shelter ever again. Look at you.”
“I know. I know. I can’t take it. I am so traumatized…” Words are being stretched out dramatically through my sobbing.
I endure 5 days of updates, including an entire day of him being at an adoption event at a local Petco. OMG. What if some random person comes in and adopts him? What if he goes to a house where they don’t love him. Okay, let’s be reasonable, he’s safe. He survived the kill shelter. But, how can I be sure he’s going to a nice home?
I can’t take another day. The following Friday, one week later I call the foster and announce that I am going to foster him. Back in the car, pack up the crate, pack up his toys, back on my lap, kisses and hugs…
It’s okay, I’m going to foster him myself. I can find him a home. He’s so highly adoptable. He so great, it will be easy. This way I can see where he’s going. I can meet the family, I can stay in touch with them and prove to myself and the world that I can, in fact, successfully foster a dog. I can do it. Posting pictures, updates, tagging people, help share this great dog, he’s looking for his forever home.
Yes, I kept up the facade for 2 months. Friends who know me and many who only know me through Facebook all played along. Okay Karen, sure. You are “fostering” Tucker. (His new name given to him by his first foster mom.) We’ll play along. How’s the “fostering” going, they would ask. Fine, fine! I’m taking him to the equestrian center to walk around. My friend pointed out that I wasn’t trying very hard – where was his “Adopt me” vest or bandana?
Well the simple fact is, Tucker was mine the second I saw him at the shelter that day. Without the support of my rescue community, and rescue organizations with a network of foster homes I might not have felt empowered to save him. In hindsight, yes, I should have just adopted him the day I saw him. But I wanted to be responsible. What if I brought him home and he couldn’t get along with my pack? So many “what ifs.” But this little dog stole my heart, and to me he is the face of so many shelter dogs.
Tucker is house trained, great on the leash, great in the car, wonderful with ALL dogs, neutral and polite to cats, amazing with kids, gentle personality, very playful, independent but loving, well mannered. These were the things I wrote on his posts when I was pretending to “foster” him, all the while convincing myself that he should just stay right here with me. How did THIS dog end up lost from his family? How did THIS dog end up one day from being killed in our county shelter? These questions are so difficult to face as an animal advocate. A pure bred dog, small, well trained and well mannered, scheduled to be killed. It makes no sense. He wasn’t a sob story of abuse or neglect, he hadn’t been injured, saved from a puppy mill or found nearly dead in the woods. He was an instantly perfect family pet. A pure bred rat terrier with removed dew claws, a docked tail and impeccable obedience. And he barely made it out of our tax funded “shelter”
Since meeting Tucker and welcoming him into my heart and home, I can now speak from personal experience about our county shelters. Something very valuable to my humane education program. Because of Tucker I have researched and educated myself about tail docking and ear cropping and now teach about this topic to middle and high school kids, and adults who will listen. Because of Tucker I have another rescue dog to bring to elementary school classrooms to show kids how special it is to adopt a dog.
Because of Tucker my heart is fuller, my days have more joy and my life has more meaning. Please open your heart and home to a shelter dog. You may be their only hope.