Area Residents are Devoted to Giving Homeless Pets a New Leash ... Make that New Lease on Life

by Jean Gossman

Every weekend, weather permitting, a huge recreational vehicle sporting giant photos of plaintive puppies and kittens visits busy enclaves of the Washington, D.C., area. It's the Washington Humane Society's (WHS) RV, and it's manned with volunteers dedicated to matching up homeless animals with pet lovers to adopt them. Dogs bound out of the RV with their volunteer handlers, ready to meet prospective owners. Cats are ensconced in the RV's bedroom to receive visitors whom they might live with.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that only about half of the six to eight million cats and dogs who enter animal shelters each year eventually are adopted. The need for cage space far exceeds its availability. Animals not adopted are euthanized as more come in to take their space in shelters, awaiting either their adoption or their death. The cycle is endless.

Many rescue organizations and shelters depend on volunteer foster homes to care for and help place animals in a “forever home.” Donna and Danny Crum of Prince George's County, Maryland, pour their lives into making sure that Washington Humane Society foster animals find new homes where they can thrive and live out their lives as part of the family. Donna's first dog was a miniature schnauzer named Danny – before she met her husband. The canine Danny served as the ring bearer at the Crum's wedding.

Inveterate animal lovers like the Crums take adoptable pets into their home, frequently at their own expense, depending on the agency. They have no idea of what animal behavioral or health problems they might confront.

Foster parents often harbor more than one adoptive animal, plus pets of their own. Donna and Danny have seven dogs and four cats of their own. (One cat and two dogs live at their business.) Adoptive pets receive basic obedience training and all of their care from their temporary guardians. Living in a home provides adoptive pets the opportunity for socialization, perhaps with people they encounter on a neighborhood walk, as well as any children and other animals who might live in the fosterer's home. But if the fostered animal has formidable problems that make adoption difficult or even virtually impossible, going back to the shelter is the only alternative.

In a home, the animals can begin recuperating and readjusting after the trauma and stress of the shelter and the events that brought them there. Fosterers like the Crums can then begin to see the animals' real personalities and habits, helping them match up pets with the right prospective owners – or not, if they deem necessary after visiting the prospective home and checking housing and vet references.

This scrutiny is a critical part of the adoption process. “We want to see what kind of life the animal's going to have.” They check for holes in fences and note the condition of any pets already in the applicant's home. It's important to give applicants an idea of what to expect in terms of short-term, post-shelter phenomena like diarrhea or excessive shedding. Donna lets the applicant know that if it doesn't work out, the animal is to go back to her, because “it will always be safe with me. It won't be safe at the shelter.” She has rejected applicants and “gotten yelled and screamed at and hung up on, on the phone.”

Adoption event photos courtesy Donna and Danny Crum


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Washington Humane Society


Humane Society of the United States

Donna has spent about 15 years working with animal rescue and adoption. The Crums' first foster dog was an eight-month-old mixed terrier whom Donna named Lucy. The dog was in bad shape and nearly emaciated. Donna said, “if my husband would have just let me have her, I might never have started fostering.” After joining her adoptive family, Lucy came back to see the Crums from time to time for visits. She recently died of a brain tumor, a sad story that Donna recounted with some difficulty.

Donna and Danny's current foster dog is “very difficult.” He loves gum and ate a pocket in Donna's new coat to get the gum she had there. He even picks it off the street. “We get the ones that nobody wants,” said Donna. “I go for the pathetic ones ... the ones nobody else wants. Also the 'bully' dogs that get a bad rap.” The Crums have been fostering longer than most people and are often asked to take in difficult cases. They take the bigger dogs who are hard to place because of size, and they like to help Rottweilers since they in particular don't do well in cages.

Donna and Danny have had adopters send their pets back to their care. A mastiff recently came back twice because his two separate adopters didn't think through the ramifications of the breed's size. One was a small women who was clearly afraid, and the dog picked up on that. He's now living with a family in Fredricksburg. The Crums have been to see him, and they're glad that “he's got a great home.”

Then there are the fosters who become long-term residents. Donna and Danny have fostered a cat named Midnight since 2003. His family loved him but had to give him up due to allergies in their household. When Donna stopped by WHS one evening, Midnight was next in line to be euthanized, so she took him. He didn't like her cats and stayed in her son Kyle's room. Worse, he was stressed out at adoption days, and he'd hide, snarl, and scratch. Donna concluded it was futile to take him to events if he couldn't show well, and she then decided she'd rely on calls generated by Midnight's WHS Web profile. “They didn't come.” When Kyle moves out on his own, Midnight will join him. Donna thinks dogs are easier to place. “A lot of people, I have found, do not think of cats as permanent.” Unfortunately, many people regard cats as more “disposable” than dogs.

With the RV, Donna said, “our adoptions have really picked up.” People “really gravitate to it.” Rather than just taking dogs to events, they can also take cats along as well and leave them on board. Now that WHS has the RV, Danny and Donna go to two adoption events a week, as opposed to two per month in the pre-RV days.

Lesser souls would balk at the time commitment, to say nothing of the financial costs. Every other week, Donna and Danny buy 240 pounds of dog food at Costco. Then there are vet bills and Frontline (for fleas) and Interceptor (for heartworm) treatments. And on and on. The Crums pay for everything; unlike some groups' policy, fosterers with Washington Humane Society are responsible for all expenses. Plus there are their other household costs. After a brief count of the number of sofas they've been through, Donna said, “I look in Craigslist and get the next $50 sofa and go on from there.”

With all of the time and complications, why do the Crums continue fostering? Donna said, “basically, it's our life.” She added, “when you know you can take an animal that's homeless and find him a good home ... when you see that animal go full circle. A lot of animals go to the shelter to die, but a lot go to the shelter to live.” Many foster parents continue to hear from their former charges' families and receive visits, pictures and even gifts. Danny added, “there's a lot of happiness.” Donna continued, “it is so rewarding to save their life versus going to a breeder or a pet store. These animals know when they've been saved.”