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Posted on Fri, May 13, 2011 : 1 p.m.

Humane Society volunteer tells of joys, and pain, involved in fostering animals

By Lorrie Shaw


Dean Erskine with two foster kittens

Photo courtesy of Humane Society of Huron Valley

The furry faces that the Humane Society of Huron Valley selects to be fostered varies — and are as numerous as the faces who bring them home to live for a period of time.

Perhaps a pet is too young (especially kittens), or ill. Senior pets are common candidates for fostering as well. Or maybe a foster situation is right for a pet that has been at the facility for an extended period of time and needs a break from it.

The Humane Society's Ann Edwards, foster care coordinator, notes that German Shepherds are one breed that is notorious for not doing well in shelters.

Many animals arrive at the Humane Society stressed to begin with, and although the staff is mindful of making things as comfortable and happy for each pet, a companion animal that is already stressed faces further challenges when in a shelter situation — inhibiting the likelihood of their being successfully adopted.

There's no place like home — even if it's a temporary one — to help pets heal, relax, blossom and be their best. And, that's the goal of the Humane Society's foster program: help pets attain wholeness so that they can be paired with a loving home, permanantly.

"Graduate students, retirees, families and stay-at-home parents are examples of those that foster," notes Edwards, "And there is as diverse a variety of pets in need, so it's a win-win situation."

Some people might choose to foster an animal for two to three weeks, as that might be all that the animal needs. Others go longer-term, sometimes months. There are pets who fall somewhere in between.

One thing is for sure: all of the pets' needs are assessed to determine what arrangement and what type of household will enable the companion animal to flourish. Edwards and other people involved in the program work hard to sort all of that out.

Some pets — like young kittens — need experienced people like Dean Erskine, who is starting his sixth season as a foster parent.

After speaking with him a few weeks ago about another pet-related matter, I could really sense his compassion and commitment to animals and was thrilled to speak with him again.

If the name sounds familiar, you're right — Erskine is one half of Lance and Erskine Communications LLC and can be heard on the Lucy Ann Lance Show. A long-time animal lover, he has an obvious knack with young kittens. Having fostered over 300 since his start in the program, he has ended up adopting two cats that he fostered.

He's wistful as he says, "There are one or two cats that other people had ended up adopting but that I still think about."

When asked why the strong desire to foster, Erskine is clear: He wanted to go further, to help in a more profound capacity. Starting out as a dog walker and offering comfort to cats at HSHV, his love for animals created a natural gravitation to have an even bigger impact.

Fostering the most needy cats made sense — although he admits that taking on kittens that needed bottle feeding proved to be a little out of his ability, as needing to get up early for work doesn't lend itself well to middle-of-the-night bottle feedings.

So, Erskine welcomes kittens that are past that stage and works to ensure that the felines have a nurturing, stimulating environment to help reinforce good socialization: play, comfort and lots of handling. The latter is very important: lots of touching, hands-on play, interaction — so that when they are ready to be adopted out, the cats don't become averse to human contact, a common problem in motherless cats.

"It's not a smooth road all of the time," reinforces Erskine.

Sometimes the kittens have ill health upon their arrival to HSHV, and coupled with their tender age, getting them well can be a challenge. Although there are a lot of succesful stories when trying to nurse a kitten back to health, some don't make it.

That aspect of fostering, Erskine says, became a turning point for him in his journey.

One litter of kittens came home with him, terribly ill, and the chances of survival were questionable. On the first night, one kitten lost their battle — that was a real blow. Ove the next couple of days, two more didn't make it. With the remaining kitten holding on, Erskine resolved to work harder to achieve a good outcome. The frail animal seemed to rally at first, but not long after, sadly, that kitten died, too.

"I learned that I had to keep in mind that there are no guarantees. No matter how hard you try, that doesn't mean that the pet will make it. Sometimes, you have to let go and realize that sometimes, it's just not in the plan."

Having welcomed a new litter of lively kittens in his house just the day before, Erskine mused about the work that Edwards, Volunteer Coordinator, Brittany Keene and Director of Volunteers and Operational Support, Kelly Schwartz have done with the program so far — and what's in store.

Edwards' philosophy has always been to have a program that facilitates real success stories — and she is adamant on constant improvement. She, along with staff, existing foster parents and numerous volunteers are hopeful that ramped-up efforts will expand the number of people participating in the program.

HSHV has put a program into place, Fast-Track Foster, to help those interested in being a part of it do so more easily. To start, orientations will be held at least once a month to help facilitate attracting more capable foster parents.The fast-track approach doesn't mean that just anyone can become a foster parent; program participants are vetted carefully.

Over the age of 21 and interested in fostering a pet? It's a serious committment, but with so many pets, there's bound to be a pet that has been selected to be included on the list of foster candidates (animals are picked due to some need; not all pets at the shelter will be fostered.)

The first step is to look on the HSHV website for the next orientation, sign up and attend the meeting, and when you know that it's right for you, an on-site visit is done to check your home and talk more to see what your experience and abilities are. Getting paired up wit the right pet in important.

One big question that most people pose is how will others know that the pet is up for adoption if they are being fostered in a home. It's actually a great way for friends and family to see a pet at their best, in an environment where they can thrive, increasing their adoptability. Plus, with the Pet-of-the-Week on local websites and events like Kittypalooza, there is always a lot of exposure for fostered animals.

  • No financial burden is placed on the foster parent; all medical care is provided, as well as food, cat litter, litter boxes, crates, etc. if necessary.
  • Animals that are included on the foster list are there because staff feels that the situation would lend itself better to the pets well-being, whether it be that they are ill, too young or aged — or behaviorally, they don't do well in a shelter environment.

For more information on Fast-Track Fostering, contact Ann Edwards, Foster Care Coordinator via e-mail or at 734-661-3520. Click here to learn more about the program online.

Lorrie Shaw is lead pets blogger for Catch her daily adventures as a dog walker and pet sitter or e-mail her directly.


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Mon, May 16, 2011 : 11:34 p.m.

Great article! I'm consistently awed by all wonderful people who volunteer their time and energy to help animals. I've got nothing but love for 'em!


Sat, May 14, 2011 : 5:37 p.m.

I have two dogs, this might be something a young dog could use some help with. Both are out going and extremely friendly. I know my one dog loves to show the other the ropes. Might consider this, this summer. Great article.


Fri, May 13, 2011 : 6 p.m.

Thank you for this article. To foster an animal is selfless. Bless those who do.


Fri, May 13, 2011 : 4:55 p.m.

Dean is an amazing foster! Thanks for much for highlighting this incredible program.