Somewhere in between the solid ground of “I can’t have a dog right now” and “I’m going out and bringing home a dog, right now!” lies the middle way: fostering. For rescue groups, foster parents provide temporary homes to dogs who have been emancipated from wallowing at shelters (often facing a death sentence, if the shelter happens to euthanize).
Folks who are willing to bring dogs into their homes on a temporary basis offer a very specific kind of service: loving the animals just enough to make them safe and comfortable until they find forever homes. For the rescue groups, foster parents are godsends who take on part of the burden. For the foster parents themselves, life is a little bit sweeter knowing that they are saving not only the lives of the dogs they help place, but also of the families whose lives the dogs change.
When Joe Marko began fostering in April 2008, it was shortly after he learned about Muttville, a rescue for senior dogs in San Francisco, and its founder, Sherri Franklin. “I read about Sherri and Muttville in the newspaper and was moved by Franklin’s story and the many dogs she saved,” he recalls. “We met, and not only was her mission was compelling and heartwarming; the woman was someone I aspired to be like. She honestly gave me faith in humanity.”
Marko was drawn to working specifically with senior dogs because of their high rates of euthanasia in shelters. Since then, he’s lost track of how many dogs in need have come through his door. Because he knows that there’s always a need to foster dogs, Marko and his partner often bring someone new into their home.
One thing Marko hasn’t lost track of are the fosters who left indelible impressions on him. Just like human loves, you never forget your first foster. “I still remember Sherri placing this little eight-pound dog in my arms and saying, ‘This is Misty Kay Mabelline.’ It was love at first sight.”
Misty Kay, who passed away in April, was “an odd-looking little dog with a tongue that hung out the side of her mouth and back legs longer than the front so when she walked, it looked like she was balancing on high heels.” Despite the fact that she was ornery, Marko couldn’t help but fall in love with her. After just a month, he realized that his first foster was a “failure” —he knew he’d be adopting Misty Kay instead of finding a new home for her. Once the adoption was official, Marko says that the sun rose and set for him around Misty Kay and their bond was what kept him dedicated to working with senior dogs from Muttville.
Though many have come and gone through his home, there’s one more foster that sticks out nearly as clearly as Misty Kay in Marko’s mind. Bongo was an emaciated Pomeranian who came to Muttville on his very last day at the shelter. “He was so skinny and weak that when I put him down to go to the bathroom, his legs buckled and he fell to the ground,” Joe recalls. But Bongo had a strong will to live, and quickly tried to get to his feet. After months of investigating the cause of his inability to gain weight, the culprit was finally identified (all costs for the veterinary testing were paid by Muttville), and Bongo turned a corner. Bongo lived with Marko for about 10 months until he was one of the guest of honor dogs at a Muttville fundraiser and was adopted by a wonderful family.
Marko describes the difficulty of getting emotionally attached to dogs he knows won’t be part of his family permanently. Especially in cases like Bongo’s, when Marko gets to see firsthand a dog overcoming a past of abuse or neglect, it is extremely difficult to watch them then move on to their forever homes.
“The truth is I do get attached,” he says. “These dogs all come from the shelter, some strays, some owner surrenders, but all are scared and confused. Within a very short time these dogs who were thrown away start to come out of their shells and their true personalities come through. It really is an amazing experience.”
How does he keep heartbreak at bay when the time comes to send one of his fosters to a new home? “The most important is that if I don’t foster, the dog will most certainly die. That may sound dramatic, but it’s 100 percent true. There simply are not enough foster homes, and all rescues are inundated with requests. Many times the only thing standing in the way of a dog living or dying is someone willing to provide a safe home. When faced with that or having my feelings possibly hurt, well, the choice is easy. I would much rather shed a tear because I’m missing a foster dog than shedding a tear when I find out the dog was euthanized because no one took them.”
How has fostering changed Marko’s life? “I wish everyone knew that something that starts to help the dogs really turns into something that helps you. Many times I’ve picked up dogs at the shelter who were dirty and scared. After they are washed, and groomed and fed nutritious food, they blossom. You watch them grow in confidence and you can see them actually smile. Then their ‘forever family’ comes and they leave, it’s sad but a happy sad I remind myself that now I can save another. Shortly after I get a picture from the new family and the dog with stories of parks, toys and playtime and I know the dog is with their real family and now their life has changed.”
Just in case there are still any naysayers, Marko perfectly sums up the impact that fostering has not only on the dogs, but on the community. “I’ve been asked by people who don’t understand why I work with dog rescue and not something ‘human related,’ but this is human related. The happiness I see on the faces of the adopting families holding their new dog is proof of that.”
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