Animal Foster Families

Chattanoogans Helping Animals in Need

By Catherine Smith
Photography by Rich Smith

It is no secret that cats and dogs are a wonderful part of many people’s lives, and many people consider them to be part of the family. Unfortunately, there are a surprising number of pets that end up in our shelters year after year – often to the point that shelters run out of room. Here, we’re shining the spotlight on locals who have chosen to open their homes to animals in need. Read on to learn more about the heart behind what they do and the special connections they have made along the way.

 

Wendy Caswell

 

Wendy Caswell’s foster journey began when a litter of puppies was found outside a Salvation Army. Days old and without their mother, these puppies didn’t have the easiest start in life, but their luck changed when Caswell and other volunteers took them in.

“I had no experience in fostering, but offered to help three of them,” Caswell recalls. She enjoyed that experience and wanted to stay involved, thinking she might take a litter of fosters once a year or so, but quickly realized there was a much larger need for foster homes than she had anticipated.

In the 12 years since that first litter, Caswell has fostered over 400 puppies. “I always tell people that fostering is fun – and it is! There are certainly worse things I could do in life than watch puppies play in my backyard,” she says. “Unfortunately, I never have time to dwell on their leaving because I know there will always be another litter of unwanted puppies in need – usually within a couple of days – for me to foster.”

To keep up with this demand, she and her husband designed a wing of their house where their dogs and foster puppies can have their own space. When she is home to supervise, Caswell allows some of her dogs – all of which are rescues – to spend time with the puppies. “Puppies that didn’t grow up with a mom can learn a lot from adult dogs,” she explains. “However, some of my dogs are older now, and I don’t expect them to tolerate a bunch of energized puppies, so I keep them separated.”

For Caswell, animal fostering is simultaneously a source of joy and a reminder of the harsh reality that animal overpopulation is a huge problem. “Shelters are overflowing with unwanted animals and are running out of space to keep them alive. Fostering is needed to give these unwanted animals more time to find a forever home,” she says.

As a veteran foster, Caswell advises, “If you have a good setup with your kennel area, that’s half the battle.” Her puppy area, for instance, includes a large pen where puppies stay together as a litter, which she has found to be beneficial. “If you can foster more than one puppy, please do! They entertain and keep each other company,” she explains, adding that newborn puppies tend to be most comfortable with their littermates.

Looking to the future, Caswell is happy to welcome more puppies into her home, but would rather see fewer animals end up in need in the first place. In order for things to change, she stresses the importance of responsible pet ownership, which includes spaying or neutering animals. “Dogs and cats are the most wonderful companions, and we as humans need to do better for them,” she concludes.

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Abigale Choi & Zachary Madonia

 

Growing up, Abigale Choi was surrounded by animal companions of all sorts, from cats and dogs to turtles and ducks. When she moved into her own apartment after college, it’s no surprise that getting an animal was the first item on her agenda.

“I knew I wanted to have animals, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the commitment of getting my own yet,” Choi explains. “After a little bit of research, I applied to become a foster through McKamey Animal Center.” Days later, she brought home her first litter of foster kittens, which she would care for until they were old enough to be adopted. At that point, she was hooked.

“Back in July of 2021, I had just brought another litter of kittens back to be adopted when I sent my foster coordinator a text saying I was ready for more,” Choi recalls. Rather than another litter of kittens, she was told about a senior cat named Paddington who needed a foster to provide feline hospice care. He had severe health complications from feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and Choi had a difficult choice to make.

“They suspected he had about two weeks left to live,” she recalls. “I prayed about it, called my vet to ask a million questions about FIV, and even called a foster mentor of mine before deciding that I would try.”

When she brought Paddington home, his fur was matted in some places and missing in others, his eyes were clouded by cataracts, and he would only eat if Choi fed him by hand. Nevertheless, with plenty of love and attention, his life extended far beyond the two weeks he had been given. The change in Paddington was remarkable, and Choi was given the chance to officially adopt him. “Without even hesitating, I said yes,” she shares. “Paddy was my first foster fail, and he quite honestly saved me when I was in a really hard spot in my life.”

“It’s definitely not all rainbows and butterflies,” Choi admits. “There are not enough resources and too many animals, and it breaks my heart.” Even so, she remains dedicated to giving her fosters the chance to have a happy ending. “I have to focus on the ones that I can save – the ones that are safe in my house with warm beds and full tummies.”

Choi fostered a total of 65 animals in 2022 and has already fostered three puppies and four kittens in the first weeks of 2023. She has no plans to slow down, and to anyone who wants to follow her lead, she has some advice: “If you are considering fostering, I can promise you that it is single-handedly the hardest but most rewarding thing I have ever done, and I 100% think you should at least try it.”

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The Ward Family

 

Samantha Ward was seven months pregnant when her husband, Ashby, found a chocolate lab wandering on Signal Mountain’s infamous W Road on a rainy evening in 2015. This road, with its sharp turns and low visibility, would be a precarious path for the dog even on a good day, so Ashby decided to bring her home. This sweet stray, who the Wards named Lucy, would be the first of many fostering success stories for the family.

“We fell in love with idea of another dog, but we knew we couldn’t keep her, so we made the tough decision to post about Lucy on Facebook, and that’s when we were connected with the East Tennessee Alliance for Animals (ETAA),” Samantha says. Though they were a young couple with their first baby on the way, the Wards found this experience incredibly rewarding and were surprised by how easy it was to work with ETAA.

Samantha Ward holding three puppies

It wasn’t long before the Wards decided to take in another foster, a 100 lb. hound dog named Moose. “Though Moose’s size was nothing short of daunting, his demeanor and love for our family showed us we could help these animals find a forever home,” Samantha recalls. “We wanted to become a ‘foster fail’ and keep him, but we knew he needed more room to run and family that could give him the full attention he deserved.” Once again, ETAA was able to find Moose a perfect forever home, and this second success story solidified the Wards’ commitment to fostering.

Their love for fostering has only gotten stronger as their family has grown, and Samantha says it has been a wonderful bonding experience. “The love our girls have for fostering and puppies has been more than a driving force to continue,” she explains. “We can find the girls in our kennel 90% of the time when we have puppies. Building beds, reading to them, or running around outside has helped us teach them responsibility and love for animals in need.”

The Ward’s dogs, Abe and Sadie, also get involved in the fostering experience. “The two family dogs we have now both take turns showing the puppies the ropes. Leading through example is huge for these foster puppies, and it shows them that they are safe and loved,” she says. “Like anything, you have your trials, but you learn what works for your family.” To date, the family has been able to help one cat and nearly 200 dogs of all ages, and every animal leaves a special memory in their hearts.

To anyone considering becoming a foster family, Samantha’s advice is simple: “Take the plunge! It was never something I thought about for our family, but our daughters have truly loved knowing that they helped puppies find and prepare for forever families.”

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Lindsey Phillips

 

Lindsey Phillips’ fostering journey began when she was scrolling on Facebook and came across a friend’s post. The post said that a local animal shelter, Trooper’s Treasures, needed a foster who could bottle feed two newborn puppies who had lost their mom, and Phillips decided that she was up for the challenge. “I started out doing that, and then I just never stopped, honestly,” she says.

In the 11 years since those first two puppies, Phillips has fostered over 250 dogs of all ages. She is happy to help any dog she can, but she has developed a particular affinity for larger adult dogs, such as Cane Corsos and Great Danes. “Over the last few years, I have been more drawn to taking in the bigger dogs. Most of these dogs have had a home, they’ve known that life, and then they end up in scary shelters or just thrown out on the streets,” she says. It can be difficult for them to thrive in a shelter environment, which makes it difficult for them to be adopted by a new family.

Older dogs often develop personality quirks that can make adoption challenging, but fostering gives Phillips the opportunity to get to know them and figure out what kind of home will be a good fit for them. For example, Knox is a 4-year-old Great Dane who displays some separation anxiety, so he needs to be with someone who can spend plenty of time with him. “Fostering is key because we’ve got to know these things – what are his triggers, what’s going to work for him – so we don’t set him up to fail in his new home,” Phillips explains.

In addition to these potential quirks, older dogs are often passed over by adopters in favor of puppies or dogs who otherwise stand out from the crowd. Pugsley, for example, is an 8-year-old pit bull mix who has been in foster homes for over three years. “She’s a really, really good girl, but she’s just not the bright, shiny puppy that everybody wants,” Phillips explains.

Often, dogs like Knox and Pugsley just need time away from the chaos of a shelter environment to let their personalities shine through again, and that is why Phillips loves taking them in. “Most of these dogs are so shut down – they’ve been strays, they’ve been in a shelter, or they’ve lost everything they’ve ever known. Watching them become comfortable enough to be who they are and giving them hope again is my favorite part,” she shares. Phillips is always happy to see these dogs find their forever homes and knows that there will always be a spot in her home for a new dog in need.

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Holley Shalene Busch

 

In April of 2021, Holley Busch began assisting with trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs, led by SCRATCH Inc. and the Humane Educational Society, to help decrease the number of kittens born without homes. After only a month with the TNR program, Busch and another volunteer were tasked with catching three adult cats as well as a litter of kittens that were tucked away under the porch and in the engine of a car.

Those kittens ended up paving the way for her foster journey. “The adults were vaccinated, spayed, and returned to the property, but the kittens were of weaning age. So, I chose to foster one of the litters and adopt them out after they were fully vetted,” Busch explains. “I was prepared to take a lot of time adapting them to human interaction, as they’d never had any human contact prior to this.”

“With a lot of work – and I mean a lot – I was able to domesticate them and find them the perfect homes. They are now approximately 2 years old and are loved beyond belief,” she shares. That success story was the first of many, and in just under two years, Busch has already fostered over 75 cats and kittens of all ages.

For Busch, the best thing about fostering is getting the chance to love on the cats and kittens that she cares for, but the impact that fostering has for these animals is what really drives her to continue. She explains, “Fostering has so many benefits. It frees up space in shelters, which means more lives are saved!”

Though she loves all of her fosters, recently a mother and two of her newborn kittens earned an extra special place in Busch’s heart. She was strongly considering adopting them herself, but changed her mind when the perfect family came along to meet them. “I knew immediately they were perfect, and there was no question. They ended up falling for the two boys and the mom, so it was a triple adoption!” she says, adding that she developed a friendship with the adoptive family and has been able to see the cats regularly. “It’s endings like this that make me continue to foster and remind me why I am so passionate about it,” she shares.

For those who want to get involved, Busch recommends finding an agency like the Chattanooga Humane Educational Society that offers plenty of support throughout the process. “If you’re considering it, just do it! It’s the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do,” she says. “Even though it’s tough when it comes time for them to be adopted, just know there is another litter waiting on you to help them next. Kitten season is right around the corner.”

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