By Maneka Gandhi*
There are far too few animal shelters in India. Huge cities like Kolkata and Mumbai have just one. But the number of people abandoning animals or dumping baby animals in these shelters is unending. My shelter in Delhi, Sanjay Gandhi Animal Care Centre, gets at least 10 calls a day from people who want to get rid of their animals because they are sick or old. Puppies and kittens are wrapped in newspapers and left outside our gate at night.
The chances of any of these animals surviving are almost nil – specially the babies. Inspite of a staff of a hundred people, we have no one who will feed them every two hours, look out for signs of parvo or diarrhoea, keep them warm if they roll off their beds onto the floor. They need special care for a few weeks. The sick and old ones need medicine and love, because being thrown out when they are most vulnerable will kill them. There are millions of dogs that wait and sadly die in shelters annually, awaiting the homes they truly deserve.
A week ago two children came to my gate and brought a three month Labrador covered with bites. Abandoned by her family and left to fend for herself on the road where she was immediately attacked by other dogs. I saw that the puppy had distemper and immediately sent her to my hospital to be isolated and treated. The disease developed. A distemper dog may be saved but with twenty four hour attention to the symptoms and immediate medicine as each symptom shows itself. They need to be cared for intensely to develop the will to pull through. Not possible when a shelter has 3000 dogs. She died after a week with terrible convulsions. Perhaps if she had been in a home, she might have survived.
Kittens come in with their eyes closed. We keep them warm and attend to them. Because they have been taken away from their mothers by someone who simply doesn’t want a litter near their home, they have no immunity. They catch viruses through the air, get allergic to the bottle feed which is either too much or too little, too cold or not liquid enough. My staff stands by helplessly as the kitten dies. Could we have had them adopted? Perhaps, in a few weeks when they are ready to go into a home. But will they make it through these crucial days? The mortality in every shelter is very high.
My sister Ambika who manages the shelter brings home really bad abandoned animals, paralyzed, with skin disease. At the moment she has 11 dogs – and each one has been cured, happy and is ready for adoption. I took the paralysed one whom she named Goofy – and he is now a playful active part of my home. If any of these had been left in the shelter they would have died.
That is where a foster parent comes in. Foster care is an opportunity to care for an animal that’s not yet ready for adoption. It’s an alternative for animal lovers who can’t make a long-term commitment, but still want to help rescue animals.
The purpose of foster care is to place into temporary care those animals who are not suitable to be housed in the shelter, whether they are too young or small to be eligible for adoption, are recovering from illness or surgery, or have behavioural reasons such as being timid or not coping at the shelter, mothers with litters, animals who require rest or rehabilitation after surgery or those with treatable medical conditions, old animals who just need a place to temporarily call their own. Many homeless pets grew up in homes where they were family members. These dogs find themselves homeless and alone. It is scary and stressful to go from a place where you are loved and surrounded by your family to a place where you are surrounded by strange dogs, people, sights, and sounds. In many of these dogs, the stress is manifested in the form of self-destructive behaviours. Not all animals in the shelter can be adopted into homes straight away. Some need some extra time and tender loving personalised care. As a foster care volunteer you help these animals find their happy endings.
Foster homes are a great solution for dogs with special needs. The fostering of animals is an important part of what an animal lover can do. If you choose to become a foster provider, you give these animals a chance at life. My shelter and every animal shelter needs a protective ring of foster parents. If you have a place in your house and heart, why not enrol as a foster parent at a shelter in your area.
If there is no shelter, then create a group through the net and your Facebook of foster parents who will pick up small animals or abandoned ones, nurse them for a few weeks and try and find them permanent homes. A good foster network can be a major ally in saving animals’ lives. Fosterers can share their experiences and mistakes with each other. Petfinders (www.petfinders.com) is an organisation in America started by one woman. It has just celebrated its permanent adoption of 25 lakh animals. I am envious of such success. Each year, kittens and puppies are born with no one to take care of them. They need people who are willing to raise them until they are 8 to 10 weeks old when they can be returned to the shelter to be spayed and placed in permanent homes.
Foster care ranges from one week to a few months, and depends on the requirements of the animal. You need to tell the shelter how long you can keep the animal. The shelter will give you the food if you want, bowls, baby bottles, kitty litter, veterinary treatments and advice, leads, beds, cages etc. No qualifications, formal training or experience needed – just a willingness to learn.
Even if you work fulltime, many fostered animals are OK to be left alone in a secure place at home during working hours. High care animals are sent to experienced foster carers who are able to give them that extra attention. Some animals require foster parents with gardens. For certain dogs, a foster parent who is home all day may be required, or a home without cats or children.
Choose what kind of animal you want to foster: a small or large dog, an old or sick dog, puppy or kitten, abandoned pedigreed dogs. What kind of behaviour problems are you comfortable dealing with – pulling on leash, jumping when greeting, inappropriate elimination, separation anxiety, barking? What kind of health problems are you willing to deal with? Medicating the dog frequently? Incontinence? Digestive disorders? Special dietary needs? Some of our biggest foster needs are foster homes for cats or kittens who have come down with an upper respiratory infection and need a quiet home to recover. Foster parents help to provide loving, caring homes where dogs can recover from surgery or heal from a broken bone. Sometimes dogs come down with upper respiratory infections as well and need some time to recover.
Kittens need a place that offers the chance to scratch and climb, play with toys, look out a window and be exposed to sunlight, and get used to sounds. You need to accustom them to wearing collars and being in cages for a while and to use litter boxes. Getting kittens used to gentle human contact is an important part of socialization. Cuddling or cradling them, handling their ears and tails, all this will increase their comfort with people, and prove helpful when they need to be examined by veterinary staff.
Foster homes provide an invaluable service to shelters by taking care of special-needs cases in a quiet and comforting environment. Foster volunteers do everything from bottle feeding orphaned babies around the clock, to socializing little ones to ensure that they look forward to human and animal interaction. They provide care, safety and love.
What kind of animals need fostering? Which ones don’t! Guinea pigs, chicks, dogs, cats, birds. I even have goats, piglets, calves that need extra attention.
You can foster even if you have pets of your own. Foster animals should be isolated from your personal pets so that you do not risk spreading any illness. Make sure your own pets are fully vaccinated.
Open your home and your heart to that animal in need. If you can find a permanent home for him/her from your friends, that is even better. Otherwise he/she gets returned to the shelter till they find adopters.
Your reward is in seeing how trusting they can be, how they love to be with humans, how much fight and play is in them even when they are small or sick. If you cannot own an animal permanently but would love to have the company that an animal provides, and help to save a life, then this is for you!
About the author: Maneka Sanjay Gandhi is a Member of Parliament and leader of animal welfare movement in India. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org. If you are interested in becoming a foster carer, send her an email.