Over the last few months, we’ve seen incredible changes within animal welfare. Communities all over the country stepped up to foster pets, opening our eyes to the possibilities of the foster-centric shelter. While we work toward caring for pets in foster homes instead of shelters, here are six things you need to know:
1. This radical idea of restructuring really… isn’t that radical. Over the last 100 years or so, research on the negative effects of institutionalization on humans has led to a massive movement toward home-based, rather than institution-based care. We’ve also learned that living in a shelter can affect pets’ stress levels, their behavior and even their health, while placing homeless pets in foster care saves shelters and rescues much-needed funding. Considering this, is it any surprise that the best way to care for pets is also in homes?
2. Inclusion is the key. We need to take a hard look at the requirements for becoming a foster caregiver in our shelter and rescue organizations to make sure we’re not inadvertently screening out great potential fosters for economic, cultural or other reasons. We also need to examine our methods of foster recruitment with a critical eye. How are we recruiting fosters, and what segments of our community are applying most often? What changes can we make to our recruitment efforts so we can reach those who aren’t applying? It’s tragic to consider that the reason some of us have been unable to build thriving communities of lifesaving foster caregivers may not be because the interest doesn’t exist, but because large groups of communities have not been invited.
3. It is possible to house the majority of pets in foster care. The urgency of COVID-19 brought foster care into the mainstream, mobilizing more people to sign up than ever before. In cities as varied as Austin, Tucson and Washington, D.C., organizations were inundated with hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of foster applications. These organizations sent as many as 500 pets to foster in two weeks, emptying their shelters. This led some cities to grapple with a new problem: how do we channel the support of hundreds of new foster applicants when we’ve already sent all the pets in our shelter to foster?
While it may not always be quite this easy to recruit fosters, we have the tools at our disposal to make housing the majority of pets in foster care a reality. Multiple shelters and rescues are now placing upwards of 5,000 pets in foster care each year. By making it easy for our communities to foster, using proven messaging, and changing the culture in our communities toward fostering, we can place more pets in foster care than ever before.
4. Fostering is a core, lifesaving strategy, just like adoptions. In the past, foster care was considered somewhat of a niche program, used mostly for neonates and pets with medical needs, while adoption is a thread that’s woven through shelters and rescues more or less seamlessly. Consider this: many pets couldn’t even make it to adoption without foster care. So why has foster been considered less important for so long? Shelters and rescues need to prioritize foster care, the same as with adoption.
5. Most pets can be adopted directly from foster care. Really! Most shelters have traditionally required pets to return to the building in order to be adopted, so developing plans for getting pets adopted from foster care has not been a priority. The progressive, foster-centric shelter keeps pets in foster care until adoption and trusts their foster caregivers to make decisions. Getting pets adopted from foster homes necessitates a shift in strategy, and those who have done this are seeing just as many adoptions – if not more! – straight from foster care. Thankfully, you don’t have to recreate the wheel. You can learn all about it in our recorded webcast, Empowering Fosters to Help Market Pets from Foster Care.
6. To house the majority of our pets in foster care, we MUST reallocate the resources to support them. Traditional systems where the weight of the entire foster system rests on one person’s shoulders are just are not viable. With dramatically fewer pets in the building, shelters can reallocate or refocus staff and volunteers to foster care, providing needed support in areas such as administration and logistics, help market foster pets, track vaccinations and more. Many shelters that are making permanent changes to foster-centricity are considering the redesign of their organizational charts, while others are re-envisioning staff roles, such as adoption counselors who can counsel both adopters and fosters.
You can learn more about foster-centric sheltering in the recorded presentation, Building a Foster-centric Organization, at the 2020 American Pets Alive! Conference. For more information, check out this webcast on the 7 Guiding Principles for Foster-Centric Sheltering on AmPA!.