By Elizabeth Nelson for Animal Life magazine, April 2017
“The first foster I had was a kitten found in a K-Mart dumpster.”
Judy Embry, a feline caretaker for Berkshire Humane Society (BHS) in Pittsfield, MA, has a gentleness about her. She lets each cat roam around the room while she cleans its condo, making soft conversation with all the felines in the room.
“These are from a hoarding situation,” she says of several black cats and two tabbies watching her clean. Their yellow eyes miss nothing.
“I happened to be in the parking lot,” she continues, “when somebody opened the dumpster and started screaming because there was a kitten in there. She was about three weeks old. I bottle fed her and ended up keeping that one! I had that cat for 17 years.”
Since Judy’s first rescue in 1994 in the K-Mart parking lot, she has fostered 566 cats and dogs, working with BHS and sometimes local animal hospitals. She keeps a log, making notations about each animal in her care.
“I added it up the other night,” she says. “Roughly 100 [of the 566]were puppies and mother dogs. For the last 10 years, I’ve just fostered mother cats and kittens. Sometimes just kittens.”
Over the past few years, BHS has been working to develop a foster care program to provide temporary homes for animals in need. Trained in proper care, these volunteers will provide an opportunity for animals to regain their health or confidence, or simply live in an environment better suited to their temperament, making them more adoptable when they return to the shelter. BHS’s Safe Pet Program also needs foster volunteers. Pets from this program have come to the shelter because their owners are unable to care for them while dealing with domestic violence or severe hardship.
Judy’s experience – which has focused on fostering kittens – is unique and vast, and for this reason BHS asked her to share her knowledge to help educate others about the necessary commitments of this meaningful work.
Currently, how many people at BHS provide foster care?
BHS has a handful of people to count on, but we’re limited on foster volunteers. It doesn’t happen very often, but it should. Once I fostered a cat with a urinary tract infection for a few weeks, to help it get better. Some animals are really shy. If someone could take them home, keep them in a room and let them out and handle them, they’d come around a lot faster.
It seems that you learned a lot through hands-on experience over the years. For anyone interested in volunteering for BHS’s Foster Care Program, what do you feel people should know? How can they prepare?
Fostering requires a lot of time, a lot of socialization, keeping everybody clean. You have to have a setup for it. If you are going to bottle-feed, you will need specific training. But mostly the shelter needs foster care for kittens too young to stay at the shelter and special needs animals who are extremely shy or bursting with energy.
You want to make sure you’ve got plenty of time because you have to spend a lot of time socializing. That way, when the animals return to the shelter, they’re well-adjusted and it doesn’t take them long to transition and find good homes.
Also, I think people need to know if they are going to bring a cat with kittens into their house, especially when they’re tiny, you don’t want to have them in a room with a rug. There’s a time period where kittens have to learn what the litter box is all about, and you’ll be cleaning up little puddles and little poops here and there.
How many hours a day do you spend caring for your fosters?
I probably spend close to 4-6 hours a day. It’s not all work. You want to keep everything clean, but the socialization part is so important. I usually go out 4 times a day to my barn – which is a finished room and not like a barn anymore – and I spend at least an hour each time.
It’s like a job.
Not when you love it!
Foster parents have to know their own pets. If you bring in a mother cat and kittens, she’s going to be very protective. If you’ve got a dog or other cats, then you have to be sure to have a separate place. Later on, the exposure can be good, because you can say those kittens are dog friendly. That makes them more adoptable. Personally, I’ve never let my dogs anywhere near my fosters.
Another thing, if possible, is to expose them to children. If my fosters only saw me, or never had any exposure with other people or children, it would be extra hard for them to transition. The more exposure they have to different people, to being handled, to noise, the better off they are. They need to hear sounds and smell smells, so they’re not scared of everything.
What is the most rewarding part of this work for you?
It’s wonderful to see the animals go to nice people and find good homes. That’s the most rewarding. The hardest part is bringing them back!
One time, had a foster cat that had been completely mauled by an animal. He was a mess. I kept the cat for 6 months. Everything healed. All his fur grew back. That was wonderful to see. Sometimes we get cats who are almost starved to death, sometimes with kittens. To bring that little family back to good health and see them go to good homes…it’s wonderful. It’s very rewarding. I do this because I love animals.
March 19, 2017 marked Berkshire Humane Society’s 25th anniversary since its founding in 1992. To celebrate, the shelter will spend the year recognizing 25 ways the organization and its dedicated staff and volunteers practice compassion. One of these ways is foster.
BHS’s Foster Care Program is always looking for volunteer homes. If you or someone you know are interested, you can fill out an application online. If selected, staff will train and inform “foster parents” of any medical treatments, the expected length of care, and the objectives of the care (restoring to health, rearing to adoptable age, socializing, etc.). BHS determines which animals will be fostered based on a number of criteria. Learn more at www.berkshirehumane.org/volunteering-at-the-bhs.