So Many Locals Want To Foster Pets That This Animal Rescue Is Rethinking Its Model The organization is working to implement a foster-centric model.
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So Many Locals Want To Foster Pets That This Animal Rescue Is Rethinking Its Model

HRA has seen a surge in interest from foster volunteers. Courtesy of/Humane Rescue Alliance hide caption

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Courtesy of/Humane Rescue Alliance

Before the pandemic, the Humane Rescue Alliance, one of the largest animal rescue operations in D.C., saw around 70 people sign up to foster animals each month.

After the District shut down in March, that number skyrocketed: The organization soon got thousands of applications over the course of six or seven weeks. "I've been in the industry for about eight years now," says Jennah Billeter, HRA's director of volunteer and foster resources. "I had never ever seen anything like that."

HRA ended up having more volunteers than they had animals to place with them. "In animal sheltering you're usually begging people to come foster animals for you, so it was like a whole script flipped," says Billeter. Shelters across the country have reported similar spikes.

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She attributes that, at least in part, to people newly staying at home more looking for ways to help and realizing, "Well, I have time for an animal now."

The pandemic and the boom in fostering has given HRA "the push we needed to do what we always wanted to do," Billeter says: Create a shelter system that minimizes the role of the shelter itself.

Billeter says that many shelters — including HRA — are currently "adoption-centric," meaning that all efforts are aimed at getting an animal ready for adoption. HRA is working to implement a system "that is foster-centric, ensuring that operations and philosophies are aligned with getting animals into foster."

"This is the future of our work," Lisa Lafontaine, HRA's president and CEO, told Washingtonian last month. "We are rethinking everything we do in terms of institutional housing of animals. We are looking at how big we can build our foster systems so animals don't have to be in institutions again."

Prior to the pandemic, Billeter estimates HRA had about 20% of their animal population in foster. The goal, she says, is to have at least 50% of their animal population in foster homes year-round.

Currently, that number is around 65%. "Our goal is to sustain these numbers ... so we are reliably hitting 50% of our animals in foster, no matter what time of year it is," Billeter says.

Ideally, she says, the only animals in the shelter would be those with significant medical or behavioral needs that require expert care.

Lexy is 9 years old. Courtesy of/Humane Rescue Alliance hide caption

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Courtesy of/Humane Rescue Alliance

Fostering differs from adopting in several ways. Anyone living in the D.C. area who is interested in fostering can do so. Volunteers are responsible for food, shelter, and other basics required to care for the animal, but HRA offers routine preventative medical care, and will provide supplies in cases when animals have specific medical or dietary needs. Foster parents must also be willing to help find the animal a new permanent home, including meeting with prospective adopters.

Prior to the pandemic, animals in foster homes were generally there for an average of six to eight weeks. When the pandemic hit and HRA moved animals to foster care, they were adopted typically within two weeks. Some of those foster parents also ended up adopting the pets themselves.

From an animal welfare standpoint, Billeter says foster homes are also preferable to shelters, where their stress levels are high and staff sees behaviors that indicate they aren't happy in that setting.

A study published in 2019 from Arizona State University and Virginia Tech researchers aimed to measure how being moved from a shelter to foster care for one- or two-night stays impacts dogs, testing their urinary cortisol levels. Cortisol is a widely used marker of the stress response in dogs.

Researchers found that those levels "systematically decrease and bouts of uninterrupted rest increase when the dogs are placed into temporary foster homes," as compared with levels at shelters before and after their stays.

Billeter notes that, just like for humans, transitions are hard for animals, but adjustment periods vary for each one.

"Some cats and dogs are like, 'Ooh, I'm in a house, I'm gonna hop up on this couch and I'm gonna take a nap cause I was super stressed at the shelter and then I'm good to go,'" she says. "And then some are like, 'Where am I? Who is this human? What is going on?'"

Regardless, though, Billeter says being in a home is significantly better for their overall well-being.

Gabrielle Maire, a 28-year-old who works in healthcare consulting, picked up her first foster dog, a 50-pound Boxer with three legs, in March, just as the health crisis hit, though she'd signed up a couple months earlier.

He was adopted quickly — Maire and her boyfriend only had him for four days — and she has continued fostering since. The downtown resident says that while it's hard to say goodbye to animals when they leave, the experience has been "really rewarding."

She also notes that all adopters are different. Some keep in touch, sending photos and updates on how the animals are doing, while others are more private. Regardless, Maire says, "When people adopt an animal from a foster home they get an animal that's usually been more comfortable with people and socialized and happier," she says. Maire has seen animals go from scared and nervous when they arrive to the complete opposite by the time they're adopted.

There other benefits to a foster-centric model, too. Brick and mortar shelters have a fixed capacity, but since there's no cap on the number of people who can sign up to foster, building out that program creates "potentially an unlimited capacity for the number of animals that you can help and support," per Billeter.

And as foster parents like Maire and others can attest, there's plenty of demand for those animals right now. Victoria McKernan, a writer who lives in Columbia Heights, has been fostering with HRA for two or three years, and elsewhere before that. The 63-year-old, who primarily fosters kittens, says they were never hard to place, but that "people would go shopping a little more" pre-COVID, considering a number of kitties before making their choice.

"Since the pandemic, it's like the California Gold Rush," McKernan says. "Once they're posted on the website, I'll get 30 emails in the first hour."

McKernan says she typically picks the first three qualified applicants, and sets up next steps, which include a Zoom meeting between the kitten and their potential owner.

She's a member of an HRA fostering Facebook group, and says now that there are more volunteers, "People are always posting, 'When am I gonna get matched?'"

Meet Maxwell. Courtesy of/Humane Rescue Alliance hide caption

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Courtesy of/Humane Rescue Alliance

But until recently, HRA wasn't sure there would be enough people to help with expanded foster programming. The spike in interest from volunteers this year has shown that the "community is willing to support this."

"We have people out there who want to help us take care of the animals," says Billeter.

Billeter says HRA added staff early on the the pandemic to help address the demand for foster placements. The team working on that programming currently has five members — including Billeter — as well as 30 or so volunteers that work as case managers or help with data entry and other tasks.

She says it's not clear yet how HRA might reallocate staff or funds to fostering, but adds "I think we just need to have bigger conversations overall in the organization to see how we use all of our resources to support foster [programming]."

Some other local animal welfare operations have long made fostering a priority. Arlington's Lucky Dog Animal Rescue has been entirely foster-based since its founding.

"We absolutely describe ourselves as 'volunteer-powered and foster-based,'" says spokesperson Emily Jagdmann. Before the pandemic hit, Lucky Dog had a few boarding partners that housed a small number of dogs, but the majority of animals it takes in go straight to foster homes.

Because of its model, Lucky Dog "kind of had a leg up," in the early days of the health crisis, says Jagdmann, and the organization saw a similar spike in foster volunteers.

She says the Lucky Dog gains intel from having their animals in foster care and seeing how they behave in a home, that helps inform their adoptions and what owners might be a good fit.

Billeter says while the number of volunteers has tapered off since the spring, HRA is still seeing double the number of people sign up each month as compared as compared with before the pandemic.

But will locals be just as eager to sign up for fostering positions when the health crisis is over? Billeter says while she doesn't have a crystal ball, early data has been encouraging. She says she also thinks that's in part thanks to a cultural shift: More people now see fostering a means of giving back.

"It's being a part of your community," she says, "and how you contribute to your community."

This story is from, the local news website of WAMU.

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