Stray animals from all over the country find safe havens in NOCO foster homes
Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Puppy Rescue
Sarah Carter comforts her Great Dane, Sadie, who suffers from anxiety. She discovered that covering Sadie with a blanket calms her in stressful situations. Carter also provides a temporary foster home for dogs waiting to be adopted through Big Bones Canine Rescue in Windsor.
Photo by Dan England
Loonie No. 1, Sly, is a black Labrador who is on Prozac for dogs, which isn’t all that different than the kind used by humans. She discovered he needed it after she adopted him, when she left him alone in a crate while she was at work. Sly destroyed the crate, then chewed through her drywall. Vets and knowledgeable owners such as Carter call that separation anxiety. That’s what the Prozac is for. Carter, gently rolls her eyes when she talks about Sly. Hey, she has anxiety, too.
Sly fits right in with her Great Dane, Sadie, Loonie No. 2. Sadie is the one hiding under the blanket, looking like a Jedi and probably growling at you quietly. She has a tough time around anyone besides Carter’s family. Carter knew she found a good boyfriend when Sadie cuddled up to him.
When Sadie got anxious during a storm, Carter tried a so-called thunder jacket to soothe her, but that just made her more nervous. A blanket, though, works great. Whenever Sadie’s in a stressful situation, such as during a visit from a stranger, Carter covers her with it.
Those are just the dogs Carter calls her own. She also provides a temporary foster home for dogs from Big Bones Canine Rescue in Windsor. Carter, is one of thousands of dog and cat lovers in the state who take in homeless pets for a short time until a kind soul adopts them. The network is uncommonly strong in NOCO and the Denver area. Many rescue organizations here boast of a roster of about 200 active fosters, dwarfing the foster programs in other states.
“Colorado is the promised land for dogs,” says Jenni Stienike, 40, who runs Big Bones with founder Kristie McArthur Fisher. “Every shelter in the country wants to send dogs out here.”
Carter began fostering about five years ago when she lost a Great Pyrenees. It hurt so much she couldn’t imagine having another dog of her own for a while, but she’d been around dogs her whole life and missed them. So she decided to volunteer at Big Bones, just down the street from her house. She cleaned cages and passed out food before she agreed to foster, just to see what would happen.
Her first was Pete, a Jack Russell terrier mix from southern Texas. He didn’t respond to commands, until the oldest of Carter’s three children, Stephani, 19, suggested he might know Spanish instead of English. Pete was sweet and loving but had the energy of a nuclear power plant. He destroyed a few pairs of shoes and some of the carpet, but he was a good dog. Pete got adopted after Carter fostered him for a month. “That was fun,” she thought, and she agreed to take more.
She’s since learned how to hide the holes in her carpet. She also has learned how to deal with all the disorders and disputes and drama that come with all her fosters. One was an escapee who would dash out the front door whenever she opened it. Another, a Basset Hound, would pee on the floor anytime she corrected him or whenever a man talked to him. Sly’s not the only one who chewed through her drywall.
“You think you know dogs and then you foster, and you experience things you’ve never seen or even heard of,” Carter says. “It actually tests whether you’re a dog person.” She is, though, perhaps more than ever. “I enjoy the crazy and chaos that goes with it,” she says.
As it turns out, so do many others.
Jade is an 18-month-old, female Shepherd mix looking for a fun, active home, maybe with another dog or two or some kiddos to play with. She’s a super-sweet, happy girl, ready for her forever family. Jade is located in Windsor, and her adoption fee is $400.
Ranger is a big lover-boy of a pit bull who is looking for a forever home. He is approximately 10 months old and dog-friendly but he comes on strong, so he would do best with a tolerant, dog-friendly, female canine of similar size. His adoption fee is $250 and includes a week of training from Mountainstates K9 Training in Greeley.
Olaf is a goofy, people-loving fool. He’s a 5- to 7-year-old, male Great Dane, but he thinks he’s a human and would prefer a home where people are around a lot. He’s been through a week of boarding and training at Mountainstate K9 Academy, and his new family gets a free training session with adoption. His adoption fee is $350.
Unlike some Cane Corsos, 2- or 3-year-old Django is very outgoing and dog-friendly. He walks well on a leash and sometimes likes to hold your hand gently in his mouth while he’s walking. A few weeks ago, he was nearly blind due to a bad case of bilateral cherry eye, but a quick tuck surgery has given him a happy, new outlook on life. His adoption fee is $350.
“People here value their pets,” Stienike says. “They just don’t value an animal’s life in those states as much. It’s just done differently here.”
“We are much further ahead compared to the nation overall, and fostering is one of those powerful tools,” says Ebony Cadet, the volunteer and foster care manager for the Weld County Humane Society, which now has about 50 foster families. “Colorado is the standard. We want to make that the national standard.”
Fosters allow rescue organizations to take in many more cats and dogs than they otherwise could, saving thousands more animals every year. That’s even more important now, Cadet says, because the warmer winters have extended breeding seasons. Kitten season used to run from April to November, but it’s almost year-round now because of the warmer winters. Shelters fill up quickly because kittens can’t be offered for adoption until they are eight weeks old. Many get sick and die because their fragile immune systems can’t handle the close quarters of a shelter. But foster homes offer kittens a safe, warm, loving home and give shelters an outlet when they are under pressure to make room for the constant stream of animals coming through their doors.
“Those foster parents end up saving so many lives during kitten season,” Cadet says. “We’d probably have hundreds more dying without them. I shudder to think what it would be like without them.”
About 75 percent of the cats under the care of Fort Collins Cat Rescue Spay and Neuter Clinic are in foster homes, a fairly typical number for a private rescue, says Maria Hall, who runs the foster program there. The organization’s 200 foster homes increase its capacity to 350 cats and kittens.
“Our facility is not enormous,” Hall says, “so it gives us the ability to help as many cats as we can.”
The same dynamic amplifies the impact of Big Bones. Stienike says the facility can house more than 30 dogs on site, but it has more than 150 dogs in foster care. In addition to helping five times as many dogs, the foster program enables Big Bones to collect five times as much revenue via adoption fees – a big reason Big Bones became self-sufficient two years ago.
Fostering is not easy, obviously, but organizations rarely have to beg people to do it. Fort Collins Cat Rescue hasn’t recruited for years, and Big Bones has never had to recruit. Three years ago, a fire at the facility gutted an outbuilding and halved the space available for dogs. As a stopgap, many new volunteers came to take the animals in as fosters, and they’ve stayed involved ever since.
So … Big Bones didn’t start the fire, did they?
“You’re not the first person to accuse us of that,” Stienike says with a laugh. “But that fire really did help us with significant growth.”
Stienike believes many of the foster volunteers stick around because they’ve been given responsibility that goes far beyond providing a short-term home. They have the final word on whether or not a dog fits in a prospective adopter’s home, or whether the adopter fits the dog.
“Our fosters are pretty empowered,” Stieneke says. “We rely heavily on them as to who has the best fit with [the dog]. It’s the best way to assess the dog’s needs. We can’t tell you from a shelter if the dog’s been crate trained or is good with other dogs or kids, or what it does when the doorbell rings or if it’s terrified of a mop.”
That helps explain why dogs in foster care have a much higher rate of successful adoption than shelter dogs. Stienike herself got started with Big Bones after adopting a Mastiff. She since has fostered hundreds of dogs. How many does she have living at her home now?
“Too many for you to publish,” she says, and laughs again.
Photo by Dan England
There’s Ginger, the two-year-old Husky who may jump up a bit (even though she knows she’s not allowed) because huskies love bending the rules and being sweet at the same time. There’s Oreo, who will lick your face when she’s not wrestling with crazy Ginger. There’s also Mama, the one with the sharp bark directed at your face because she doesn’t know you and therefore does not trust you.
But wait. There’s more. Those three little white dogs include Lily, a Bichon Frise with one eye who loves attention and knows he will get plenty of pets and perhaps a lap when the chaos settles (and it will). There’s Jasmine, the old lady at 16, who will come out of the bedroom to see what all the damn commotion is about, squinting like a grandmother waking from her afternoon nap. Finally, there’s Beanie, the one hiding under the table. Beanie defines what it means to be a foster family, and why the Whalens are such a good fit for the Weld County Humane Society.
They had Jasmine for a long time by herself, before they got Lily, and the house was calm, even peaceful, the way most 40-year-olds like it. Then Dylan … oh, yes, there’s actually a child in all this, too, and he’s not as overlooked as it may seem. In fact, it’s his own fault that he’s now merely one wolf in the pack of pooches. A few years ago, you see, Dylan saw someone giving away puppies in the parking lot as they were leaving the store. He saw a white one with a black patch and decided that one had to come home with them.
Christina never really liked big dogs, and these puppies would grow to be big, so she dismissed the idea the way parents sometimes do the silly suggestions of a 7-year-old. Well, Dylan burst into tears. “But she has nowhere
to liiiiiiiiiiiiiive,” he wailed.
And so Oreo came home to join Jasmine and Lily.
A year ago, when they noticed Oreo seemed a little lonely, they adopted another big dog, Ginger, for Oreo to wrestle with. Then Christina began fostering, and it snowballed, because once you have four dogs, what’s a couple more?
Well, it’s quite a bit, when you foster Mama, a tiny black chihuahua who barks and barks. But then Mama fell in love with Lily, and … Wait! What’s this? Mama is slooowwwwly creeping over to you, looking at you like you’ve got a bomb strapped to your chest but might also be holding an ice cream cone. When you respond with a scratch on the head, she flops next to you, her body barely covering your thigh.
“She’s actually very sweet,” Christina says and laughs. “She just needs to get used to you and make sure you know she’s boss.”
As Christina talks about Mama, Lily sits on the floor, emitting an increasingly insistent whine at Jeff’s calf.
“Can you pick her up so she’s not like that?” Christina says to Jeff, in a tone that suggests they’ve had that conversation maybe 978 times. But things are settling down, other than the 22-round wrestling match between Oreo and Ginger, which makes Christina nervous because they just spent a LOT of money to have one of Oreo’s knees repaired.
“Please don’t let her do that,” Christina says to Jeff again, in the same tone.
Now’s a good time to talk about Beanie, who has come out from under the table and is silently resting on a cushion behind Jeff. They fostered Beanie, and, as it turns out, no one had ever touched her. They tried many times, and Beanie bit them many times. Christina has a scar on her hand from one of those times. But they kept trying, and eventually, though she is still skittish, Beanie allowed it.
“It just killed me to know that she never received any human kindness,” Christina says.
When Beanie stopped biting, Christina couldn’t give her up. They adopted Beanie six months ago, and Mama three months ago, and now they are done, they promise … although Christina admits they thought they were done with five.
Christina is a little embarrassed. She knows it’s not the life many others would want. They haven’t been on vacation in at least two years. Who would watch that crew?
“I feel like a crazy dog lady,” she says. “I used to really judge people who had more than three. But they need us.”
And in another way, Jeff and Christina need the dogs. They can’t imagine another life now.
“We wanted this, believe it or not,” she says. And somehow, you do.
What if the animal I’m fostering needs vet care? Who pays?
Generally, the animal is still under the care of the shelter or organization while you foster, so if the pet needs medical work done, you won’t have to pay.
Do I need special training or qualifications?
Foster programs usually require you to fill out some forms and submit to a background check in order to be considered. There may be a home visit as well, to ensure that your property is dog-friendly (e.g., with a properly fenced yard). Some programs do require training. The rules for each program are different.
If I want to foster, whom should I contact?
Here’s a short list of organizations that are actively seeking foster volunteers. There are others in NOCO, so check Google and Facebook.
Humane Society of Weld County
Larimer County Humane Society
Big Bones Canine Rescue
Fort Collins Cat Rescue and Spay/Neuter Clinic
Rocky Mountain Puppy Rescue