The challenges and joys of raising a pet just to give it away

Buster, right, plays tug-of-war with two puppies that a Winthrop family is fostering. Submitted photo

There’s always that one dog. 

Leanne Ryan has been fostering animals for 25 years and over those years, she has taken in more than 3,000 dogs, acting as a caring go-between until a good permanent home could be found. 

Typically, Ryan says, when an animal is finally adopted and leaves her home, she jumps for joy. 

“You know that the adoptive family has been through an application interview, a home visit, and reference checks,” she says. “They’re so excited the majority of the time that when they come and meet their new dog, it makes it all worth it. You know the dog is going to have a great home and get individual attention.” 

Leanne Ryan and her family fell in love with Hazel, a Boston terrier chihuahua mix. Submitted photo

For people who foster dogs and cats, the general thinking is like this: You like them all, you fall in love with a few, but you let them go when it’s time because there are other animals that need help. 

“When one goes out the front door,” says Ryan, who is now the adoption coordinator with Passion for Pets Rescue in Brunswick, “there are 25 waiting to come in the back door.” 

But again . . . that one dog.  

For Ryan, it was a Boston terrier named Hazel that came to Ryan’s home in a family way. Ryan and her family cared for that particular dog while she was carrying puppies and then they cared for her another 10 weeks after the puppies were born. 

“And when she got adopted, me and my daughter cried,” says Ryan. “And I never cry. It’s just, this dog thought she lived with us. We had her three months and she fit in so good. She was amazing and it was hard lettering her go. But you know, she’s with an older couple now and she’s getting their undivided attention. They love her to death. You know she’s in a great space.” 

Almost everybody who fosters pets has a story like this. And make no mistake, there are a lot of people out there doing just that: taking in pets to care for temporarily while waiting for that animal’s “forever home” to emerge. 

There are several groups all over the state that manage foster programs, linking up dogs, cats and other critters with qualified families. 

An overwhelming majority of the dogs and cats in questions come from the South: from states like Georgia and Mississippi, or from puppy mills. 

Sadie Polky, 6, of Winthrop with a pair of kittens her family is fostering. Submitted photo

Most animal rescues have networks that alert them when there are dogs or cats in need of families. 

“We’re made aware of dogs that are in need of rescuing,” says Deb Cote, assistant director with Maine Lab Rescue, based in Windham. “Sometimes it’s from an animal control officer, sometimes it’s from shelters. Sometimes it’s from folks who find dogs down there, but we cannot legally take the dog off the street and find it a new home.” 

Maine Lab Rescue alone has placed roughly 5,500 animals in its 10 years. 

Animals brought up from the South have to go into a quarantine period with a foster family before they can be adopted out permanently. For an animal under 6 months old, quarantine is five days. Older dogs have to quarantine for 48 hours. All animals have to be properly vaccinated. 

By the time a dog or cat is ready to be adopted permanently, all the bases are covered. 

“We supply the foster home with everything they need,” says Ryan. “The kennel, the food, the leash, the collar, toys . . . The dogs are all up to date when they get here.” 

For families looking to adopt pets, there are advantages in getting them from rescue services, Ryan says. One very big advantage, she says, is that by the time the animal is ready for a new home, it’s a known quantity. The animal’s individual characteristics have been observed while living in a home environment, rather than in a kennel or cage. 

“That’s what makes us different from adopting from a shelter,” Ryan says. “Because you’ll know that the dog has lived in a house. I can tell you if it’s going to pee on the recliner. I can tell you if it’s going to chase cats or jump up on the counter. We just had one (dog) steal a giant steak off the counter the other night. I can tell you all these things that a shelter can’t, because those dogs are living in a cage.” 

There are, however, shelters that offer foster services, including the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston. They, too, provide foster families with everything needed for temporary pet housing, including food, medications, litter and crates, once individuals have passed background checks and other vetting. 

And as it is for the private Maine rescue companies, the business of fostering is brisk at the shelter. 

Two of the kittens fostered by Monique Nadeau-Ruby of New Gloucester. Submitted photo

“Puppies are definitely our fastest-growing type of foster,” says Angela Poulin, foster coordinator with the GAHS. “Last year we had 59 puppies in foster, and we’ve already doubled that this year with 108 puppies! All our puppies are transported up from our southern rescue partners. Due to limited kennel space at the shelter, we are only able to take puppies that have confirmed foster homes. Puppies are typically our shortest foster experience since they only have to be out for 5 days. Fostering puppies is a lot of fun! It’s a great way to have the excitement of a new puppy without the commitment.” 

Puppies are cool and all, but cats need homes, too. The shelter’s biggest need right now, Poulin says, is homes for pregnant or nursing cats and ‘bottle babies.’ 

“We had 50 pregnant cats in foster last year and about 320 kittens,” she says. “With how crazy this year is that number will definitely increase! Pregnant cats are typically in foster for eight to 10 weeks after their kittens are born. Mom does all the work in caring for the kittens, so all the foster has to do is monitor the kittens to ensure they’re gaining weight and staying healthy. Bottle babies are kittens under 4 weeks old who cannot eat on their own. They must be bottle-fed every two to four hours depending on their age and they must be stimulated to go to the bathroom. This is the most involved type of foster we have and requires the most commitment.” 

Any service that provides foster homes for animals tends to have a network of individuals or families who have been properly vetted. Passion for Pets, for instance, has roughly 30 to 45 established pet foster homes. 

But not every foster family is the same. People have individual needs and desires when it comes to taking in animals. The rescue and foster coordinators have to be flexible, ready to adapt to a variety of demands. 

“Some of them foster back to back, some only foster in the summer, some foster and then wait a month or two before they foster again,” says Ryan. “We have fosters that reach out to us and say, ‘Hey, I’m going on vacation in a week, so I need somebody that’s going to move right out the door.’ So we would give them a dog that’s a five-day quarantine, or a dog that we know is going to get scooped up pretty quick. We can be flexible. We have some fosters that only like puppies. We have some that will only foster adults. I have one foster that only fosters under 40 pounds. We can meet all those accommodations. We have enough dogs where we can do what fits for your home and your family.” 

So, who are these people, so accommodating that they’ll take strange animals into their homes, fall in love and then willingly hand those pets over when the time is right? 

Like pets themselves, those who foster come with a range of personalities and outlooks. 

Anne Wilder of Gray with her foster cat, Harrison. Submitted photo

ANNE WILDER: ‘A LITTLE LIKE BABYSITTING’

Anne Wilder lives in Gray with her husband, two daughters, two cats, two dogs and a few chickens wandering around in the barn. 

With all that, why take in more animals?  

It’s not complicated. 

“I find that fostering is a great way to support the shelter, give back to the community, and teach our kids about volunteering, service and animal care,” Wilder says. “Getting to have adorable kittens around is absolutely a driving factor!” 

Wilder herself grew up on a farm, so animals running all over the place isn’t a new thing. She fosters both dogs and cats because she wants to be able to help as many animals in need as she can.  

She does it for her children as much as for the animals themselves. 

“I think the biggest part was being able to foster pregnant cats that would have their kittens here in our house,” Wilder says. “That was really special for me when I was a kid, and I’m so glad my children get to see that process, too.” 

Wilder began fostering in March of 2021. Like the others, she’s got a particular philosophy on the nature of fostering — of getting attached to an animal only to turn it over to someone else. 

“It’s a little like babysitting,” she says. “It is hard, but we all start knowing that they’re going to go to loving homes when we’ve done our work. It’s wonderful when I know who the adopters are. Leaving them at the shelter after weeks of taking care of them and NOT knowing is harder, but I imagine them in wonderful, loving homes, and hope for the best, AND look forward to the next batch! Honestly, if we kept them all — which we could not afford — we couldn’t keep fostering.” 

Monique Nadeau-Ruby of New Gloucester with one of the kittens she fosters.

MONIQUE NADEAU-RUBY: ‘WELL-ROUNDED KITTENS’ 

Monique Nadeau of New Gloucester began fostering in the spring of 2016 after overhearing shelter workers talking about how many litters of kittens there were in need of homes. 

“I jumped at the opportunity,” she says, “and brought home a momma and her five babies. They were such a delight and an easy batch to foster. The momma basically did all the work. I just needed to feed them, clean the litter box and give them lots of love. It was extremely difficult to bring them back to be adopted. In the end, I adopted the momma.” 

Like many other fosters, Monique developed a liking to helping out other animals on a temporary basis. She got into a groove and the process got easier as she went along. 

“Once I started fostering, I couldn’t stop,” she says. “I have a  designated kitten room in my home so they get their privacy. I have cats and dogs of my own so once they are six weeks old, I slowly introduce them to my animals, especially my dogs. I believe it’s important for them to be socialized with people and other animals. That way when they go to their forever home, they are well-rounded kittens.” 

It’s a learn-as-you-go prospect a lot of the time. 

At one point, Monique found herself in a situation where she had to bottle feed some of her foster kittens. The shelter workers showed her how it was done and she found a wealth of information from “The Kitten Lady” on YouTube. 

“You definitely form a bond,” Monique says, “when you get up every two hours to bottle feed these kittens.” 

Adrien Polky, 10, of Winthrop with two cats that his family is fostering. Submitted photo

MORGAN POLKY: ‘WONDERFUL FOR SO MANY REASONS’

Morgan Polky of Winthrop has a 6-year-old daughter, a 10-year-old son, a husband, two adult dogs and four cats. 

Too busy to foster? 

Come on, now. Have you learned nothing? 

“I began fostering about two years ago because my 8-year-old son, Adrien, was really interested in the shelter and helping animals and wanted to give back to help animals in a hands-on way,” Polky says, “so we gave it a try and fell in love with it instantly.” 

The family has been fostering pregnant cats, litters of kittens and puppies now for two years. 

“It’s wonderful for so many reasons,” Polky says. “Of course all of the puppy and kitten snuggles and love from them is the cherry on top, but personally my favorite part about fostering animals is to give them the love they need, to get a jump-start on training — to get them used to all sorts of environments, people and other animals, riding in the car, waking on a leash, so they have success in their forever homes. I also love being able to help find them adoptive homes — many of my friends and family have adopted the animals that we have fostered, and it always helps us give them back knowing they’re going somewhere where we know they will be loved and well cared for.”

For more information on fostering, see related story.


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