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What it takes to be a Howard County foster pet family

Rescued from a hot U-Haul truck with more than a dozen others in July 2013, 9-year-old pit bull mix Layla was so depressed in her pen that Howard County Animal Shelter workers brought her up front for some human companionship.

And Katelin Rowley, contemplating a cat to buddy up with her dog, Hanai, headed to the same shelter and promptly fell for the dog ‘‘so pitiful I couldn’t leave her.’’

Sometimes because of age, health issues, personality problems or just plain bad luck, rescued animals simply can’t wait for adoption. In providing temporary homes, security, affection, veterinary care and occasionally bottle-feeding, fostering programs aim to bring them up to adoptable condition even as they free up shelter space for other critters. 

But it’s not all warm cuddles and wet kisses.

Former only-dog Hanai had to adapt to sharing her mom, and 9-year-old Layla, herself a mom of many litters, had to learn the rules of good house dog behavior. Rowley kept dainty Hanai and rambunctious Layla apart, only sniffing but not seeing each other for a couple of weeks. The girls took separate walks for a few weeks more but now roam the house, sleep, play and hike together, as long as Rowley is there. When Rowley is away, they are retired to separate quarters. 

It’s coming up to a year together now, and while there’ve been some inquiries about Layla, she’s still part of the little pack. Will the right owner ever come along, and if so, will Hanai be OK? Will Rowley?

Whether or not the foster match lasts forever, Rowley says, “I just wanted to save her so she’ll have a good rest of her life, whether it’s with me or with her perfect match.”

Knowing that at any time she could be called to meet a potential adopter — although unlike at a  shelter, adoption is based on the best match, not first-come, first-served — could she start all over? 

Says Rowley emphatically, “I would totally foster again.”

The right decision

“I think the hardest part is not just letting go but the uncertainty about making the right decision. We feel like we made promises to [the animals],” says Laurie Wallace, leader of Animal Advocates of Howard County, head of its fostering program and temporary “mom” more than 20 years to goats and roosters as well as multiple dogs and cats. 

Still, “fostering is hugely rewarding,” she continues. “How many people can say, ‘I saved a life’? That’s the reason people foster over and over.”

Between the two of them, Daria Heiger and her 10-year-old son, Gregory, have fostered six horses and adopted one from Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine.

Daria began volunteering first, and Gregory joined her four years ago for some quality time together, as well as more time grooming, exercising and generally attending to the animals he loves.

That’s why she loves the program for her son. He’s learning responsibility combined with fun, what you have to do to care for an animal and what happens when people don’t, she says.

The farm offers several foster plans — one or two days a week, riding and non-riding, as well as matching with a suitable horse — but unlike domestic animal fostering, pet parents don’t necessarily provide a home.

While his mom met her match and wound up adopting her foster horse, Scotland, last year, Gregory continues fostering “his” miniature horse, Truffles, even using birthday and Christmas money to do so, though he has grown too large to ride her.

“He has invested a lot of time with her. He’s not going to stop,” says Daria proudly.

Three of Gregory’s fosters have been adopted, and one the Ellicott City duo shared passed away. 

“It is tough, but in a way these are life lessons,” Heiger explains.“From the beginning, I told him we’re taking care of this horse until it can find the right home.” 

According to Caroline Robertson, Days End’s director of development, “The way most parents spin it is, ‘This is DEFHR’s mission, and you’re helping with it.’ We do encourage people with a horse-crazy child to participate in the foster care program. It’s very different than riding lessons!”

Big rewards

It’s not only the animals that are helped by fostering. When she was 14 and being home-schooled due to a serious autoimmune disease, Caroline Mohler of Elkridge got the idea of teaming up with her mother, Ann Mohler, and the Maryland SPCA to take in litters of puppies too young and frail to be adopted.

“The goal is to get them strong, healthy, heavy and ready to be spayed or neutered at 8 weeks,” Ann Mohler says. As for Caroline, “It helped keeping her in the now. Hand her a puppy, and it would give her a break from all her symptoms.”

The pups begin underweight, quiet, scared and smelly. But after being bathed, fed and played with they’re much better by the second week. In a household with three other children, their friends and a dog who rounds ’em up and fetches someone if they cry, “by the time they leave they’re pretty well socialized and used to anything,” Mohler reports.

“Now, the busier we get, the less we do,” she admits. But after some four years, 47 puppies plus, a few adult dogs and one litter of kittens (whose baby-gate-scaling propensity and allergens precluded an encore), they look back and see how rewarding it has been. 

Bliss Kern, volunteer foster coordinator with the Maryland SPCA, deals with parents wondering how to present the foster situation to their children and recommends telling them that kittens/puppies are coming to visit.

“I’ve never lost a foster booking because kids found it too upsetting,” she maintains, “although I have with adults!”

Becoming a foster pet parent was a complete accident for Lauren Schuler, mom of 3-year-old Hannah and pregnant with her second baby in 2007, when she noted a stray cat raising continuous litters near their Woodstock townhouse.

No sooner had she bottle-fed one straggler than five new kittens took refuge under a window.

While on maternity leave herself, Schuler decided to trap them and spay the females, with the help of Animal Advocates of Howard County. The mother cat was released, and her offspring, no longer feral little spitfires, were adopted by folks from Columbia to Northern Virginia. Schuler still gets pictures at Christmas.

She’s been fostering ever since. When friends call asking her to take cats they found, she answers no but suggests fostering themselves. “All you need to do is feed, socialize, love and give them up,” she says.

Schuler admits to having adopted four through the years, but this won’t happen with current foster Shay, who doesn’t get along with sole female feline Sasha, and she was there first. (Shay does get a break, though — he vacations with the family and loves being an only cat.)

Hannah and Matthew Schuler, now 10 and 7, have grown up fostering and have no problem with farewells, says their mom. The whole experience “has taught them to be nice.”

And litter box co-cleaner husband Todd is happy to see them go … to good homes.  

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