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Pet Fostering May Be Deploying Troops' Answer for Saving Fido and Kitty

By Harry Noyes
National Guard Bureau

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, March 5, 2003 – For the harried soldier, scurrying to wrap up a thousand details before deploying to an unknown future, pet abandonment is a decision born of desperation and fraught with guilt.

For a frightened, bewildered animal, suddenly ripped from a secure and comfortable home and thrust into a terrifying world of shelters -- or worse, life as a stray on the streets -- abandonment almost always means an early death.

Moved by a love of animals and gratitude to their country's defenders, a growing number of Americans are offering an alternative scenario, pet fostering.

These stay-at-home patriots open their homes to the dogs and cats -- and sometimes the rats, parrots, iguanas, boa constrictors and tarantulas -- of departing soldiers who have no one else to care for their animals.

When the soldier returns, he or she gets to restart life with a beloved family member. The pet is healthy and happy, and the soldier, guilt-free.

The trick is getting soldiers and foster-caregivers together and making sure that the parties (human and animal) are a good fit for each other, said Maj. Steven D. Osborn of U.S. Army Veterinary Command here.

Osborn recommended beginning the search locally. Soldiers can check with installation veterinary treatment facilities, which may be familiar with local services. But in the event the VTF isn't, the soldier should not give up.

Check next with local humane societies, animal-control facilities and breed clubs. If that does not turn up a suitable program, then cast a wider net regionally or even nationally. Of course, a more distant foster home involves costs for transportation of the animal, but this is a small price for owners who love their pets and feel a sense of responsibility toward them.

Several World Wide Web sites now exist to help soldiers with general advice on fostering and with brokering services to bring pet owners and foster-caregivers together.

These sites do not assume responsibility for the pets. Even if a site matches up pet owners and pets with potential caregivers, the pet owner is responsible for the final decision to work with a particular caregiver.

It is also the pet owners' responsibility to communicate fully and openly with foster-caregivers, to ensure both sides are comfortable and confident with arrangements, to settle all questions about expenses beforehand, and to draw up a contract outlining such details.

The pet owner is generally responsible for veterinary bills, special foods and the like. The owner may offer a gratuity for the foster-caregiver if he or she wishes to, but most services are set up on the understanding that fostering per se is free of charge to the soldier.

Among the relevant Web sites are these:

  • NetPets (www.netpets.org, and click on the "military pets foster project" link at top of home page), is a nonprofit service that says it has recruited and screened 5,000 foster- caregivers. Caregivers must provide references and contact information about their veterinarians. Founder Steve Albin phones the veterinarian before accepting a would-be fosterer. There is no charge to soldiers, who can fill in an online form describing their pets. Albin will then match each pet with one or more suitable foster homes. There are also links for signing up as a foster-caregiver and for donations to support the site.

  • Feline Rescue (www.felinerescue.net, and click on "Operation Noble Foster" box), is a nonprofit that says it has received many fostering offers. The site has a database allowing owners to do their own searches for suitable fosterers. Feline Rescue does not screen fosterers itself, but collects screening information for pet owners to study. In turn, it asks owners to provide a "cat resume" to help the fosterer determine whether a particular cat is suitable for his or her home. The site also offers a sample contract form.

  • The Humane Society of the United States (www.hsus.org/ace/11822) doesn't offer foster-brokering services, but it has much information to assist military pet owners, including a checklist and a sample contract form. The society works with other animal-protection organizations to encourage local shelters to develop fostering programs.

  • 4MilitaryFamilies (www.4militaryfamilies.com/pets.htm) provides information and tips for taking care of military pets during foster care or moves.
(Harry Noyes is assistant editor of The Mercury, the U.S. Army Medical Command newspaper, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.)
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