From Foster Fail to Foster Family

By Noa Levy

           Three years after beginning her journey at Animal Rescue New Orleans, Emma still recalls her past love affairs with every single dog that she helped find a forever home. “I will always remember them, every single dog,” said Emma Miller. She began volunteering at Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO) during her time as president of the national service fraternity, APO, at Tulane University, and quickly “fell in love with [ARNO],” joining their team soon after graduation. 

           Rebecca Melanson, a communications director for Louisiana American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Louisiana ASPCA), shares a similar experience as she also pursued her love for animals just three days after she graduated from college in 2018. “It’s a really fulfilling job to have. Every day I am able to see the impact of my work,” said Rebecca. The impact that rescue shelters have on the lives of abandoned animals is immeasurable as they rehabilitate animals from extremely unfortunate conditions before entering the shelter. A few of the stories of how the dogs arrived at the shelter were truly shocking. Rescued dogs have been found with their mouths duct-taped shut and bite marks covering their bodies because they had been used as bait in local dogfighting rings. Other dogs have been rescued after being thrown into dumpsters, left to wander around the city, or even in one case, tied to a pole so tight that it cut off the circulation and slowly asphyxiated the animal. Thankfully, Louisiana ASPCA was able to rescue the dog in time and is currently giving him the proper medical attention that he deserves. 

           Animal shelters in Louisiana directly impact the lives of both animals and people. Former foster turned adpoter, Amber Wallo recalls that after adopting her first cat, Waffle, “It’s nice when you come home you have someone that looks forward to seeing you.” Similarly, foster mentor and adopter, Jessica Ports Robbins, also relays the same sentiment, “that constant companionship was really comforting.” Before adopting her first cat, a 12-week old orange kitten named Dexter,” Jessica lived alone as a master’s student at Georgia Tech. She noticed that “companionship and compassion are the two things that definitely became more prevalent” after her first adoption. Not long after adopting Dexter, Jessica adopted her first dog, “I picked her up and started petting her, she licked me on the chin and it was all over.” Today, Jessica currently houses 11 foster and 8 adopted animals.

           Jami Hirstuis, a volunteer at Metairie Humane Shelter emphasized the importance of protecting animals and knew that she was destined to help, one rescue at a time. “I went to a meeting twelve years ago just to see what they did, and I was hooked.” Jami Hirstuis is one of the longest-tenured volunteers at the Metairie Humane Shelter and would not give it up for the world. Because it is a nonprofit, Jami and all the other volunteers are unpaid, excluding them from all grants or any federal assistance. Although the shelter suffers from cumbersome food and veterinary expenses, she owes the success of Metairie Humane Shelter to what she calls “the bestest village in the world.” 

           Volunteers are a large part of what keeps the shelters in Louisiana afloat. At the Louisiana ASPCA, “We have way more volunteers than we have staff members” said Rebecca. They contribute by providing donations, resources, or simply their time. Most of the shelters’ volunteers are students, court-ordered, and “older crowd(s) because they’re retired.” Many of the shelters’ volunteers also function as foster families. Fostering an animal can significantly impact the effectiveness of a shelter. As dogs typically take up a lot of space, being able to foster a dog out of the facility allows for additional room to take in more animals. Emma, Rebecca, and Jami all mentioned experiencing a “bittersweet” feeling when a dog is finally adopted. Although it hurts to see them go, “You’re just ultimately really happy for them and you know that their life is just going to be better,” says Emma.

           Within each shelter, there are many types of foster families. In most cases, families will foster a dog until they are eventually adopted by someone in the community. Emma Miller mentions that fostering is one of her favorite things to do. Since 2019, Emma has fostered about ten dogs, each having a special place in her heart. She continues to foster even though she found and adopted her companion for life, Chester. Emma and many other volunteers have experienced a phenomenon they call “foster fail…when you foster and you end up adopting.” While this is beneficial to the shelter, dogs, and foster families, many times “when you end up adopting…it takes a foster out of contact so they might not foster again” which is why an abundance of volunteers is essential to the animal shelters.

           Everyone in the greater New Orleans area has an immense impact on animals and shelters around Louisiana, although most do not give them a second thought. Although Jami praises the volunteers and foster families that have come through the shelter throughout the years, she still maintains a cynical view of her community “because the public as a whole is not responsible,” and no one seems to care. Due to a “lack of education and awareness and just plane ole’ laziness,” the rapid breeding of cats and dogs caused by a lack of spay and neutering has become a common trend that continues to negatively impact animals and shelters across Louisiana, said Mandy Meyer, who has been an adopter and foster mentor at Louisiana ASPCA for six years. 

           This phenomenon causes a dramatic overpopulation of animals who end up abandoned as strays. “There’s a big problem with overbreeding overpopulation of cats and dogs in the city,” said Amber. Louisiana ASPCA functions not just as an animal shelter but “also has a contract with the city of New Orleans to provide animal control” meaning the majority of their animal intake are cases of stray animals as a result of hyper-breeding. Mandy explains that “cats can have up to three litters a year and in one year, two cats can turn into 80 cats, but just going in and killing at these cats doesn’t do anything.” 

           Due to the high population of strays and the limited space within each shelter, shelters are forced to euthanize their animals. Mandy, along with the many shelters that she’s worked with have a mission to “turn the United States of America into a no kill shelter nation. A decade ago we were killing 2 million animals a year.” In order to rectify the issue of overbreeding and hopefully achieve a “no kill shelter nation… meaning that they have a 90% save rate.” Mandy suggests that if you “universally spay and neuter [animals],…return them, let them be what they are, they’ll just stop making more of them.” Hyper-breeding is detrimental to these animals as well as the volunteers in animal shelters. There are only a handful of people who take care of the problem of overpopulation. Consequently, Mandy explains how they often get “burnt out and cry themselves to sleep because of how many perfectly healthy dogs and cats they have to put down because they don’t have any room for them.”

           Instances like Hurricane Ida are “why we urge pet parents to always include your pet in your evacuation plan, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes you got to get out and you can’t bring your pet with you, so they thought they were doing the right thing, leaving their pet in their house with the air conditioner running, but of course, the power goes out, and then you have a pet trapped in a hot house with no access to food and water besides what you left,” remarks Rebecca. In emergency situations such as this, “We had to, I don’t want to say break into a lot of people’s houses, but we had to find creative ways to get animals out of houses that we hadn’t taken until the owner was able to come back.” Although hurricane season in Louisiana ensues destruction and mental unease, many pet parents found comfort in having their animals alongside them during this time. Three days after Ida hit, once Mandy realized the scale of devastation as a result of the Category 4 hurricane, she, along with her five dogs and two cats drove from Louisiana to Florida. “We drove through the night,… my guys were a little weirded out, but they were with me and that’s all that mattered.”

           One of the most difficult moments for Louisiana animal shelters was getting all of their animals to safety during hurricane season. “With Ida, [ARNO] had two staff actually stay out the hurricane with the animals…and then we had people stay overnight.” ARNO and many other shelters in Louisiana sought out emergency volunteers to temporarily evacuate with the pets as well as participated in transport systems with other shelters to house their animals to stay protected from the hurricane. “But definitely the animals aren’t forgotten about…they definitely got all their walks, still, they all got fed.”

           Unfortunately, while most of the animals already in the shelters were moved out of danger, many animals in Louisiana were surrendered or abandoned due to the hurricane. At Louisiana ASPCA there was a dog “that was tied to the fence… the morning the hurricane was supposed to hit…and it sucked.” Rebecca explained that “there’s people literally living in tents next to their houses, of course, it’s cramped and already you don’t really want to add a dog into that…you have people surrendering their animals literally crying because they’re members of their family,” but shelters such as Louisiana ASPCA are obligated to take in all animals they receive. Thus, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Louisiana ASPCA “saw a huge influx from the 29th of August through the 29th of September, we took in 400 animals.”

           The impact of COVID also had a dramatic effect on the prosperity of shelters across Louisiana, initially, they really suffered. As many of the shelters’ volunteers are students, “the biggest hit is when universities are closed,” Everything came to a stop. Emma at ARNO says, “I think we were one of the only organizations that were still accepting volunteers because…we don’t get to decide that we want to close, you know, we have living things there.” Louisiana ASPCA faced a similar issue, “they had to empty out a lot of shelters because they couldn’t get people in to work them,” said Mandy. Nevertheless, Mandy rejoices in the tight-knit community of animal lovers as “fosters came out of the woodwork and I thought that was brilliant.”

           Shelters around Louisiana were not only experiencing a deficiency in volunteers but in funds as well. Jami Hirstius at the Metairie Humane Shelter explained that due to COVID, “it was another year of losing the bulk of our fundraisers, unfortunately… [In] 2021, we lost all of our big fundraisers, we had to improvise. Instead of having sit-down dinners and things like that we did drive-throughs in the parking lot of the [veteranary] office.” 

           Although the financial impact on the shelters was damaging, “right after that first initial stop, everything picked back up. Immediately, we saw a huge influx of people who wanted to adopt because now they were working from home, and they could dedicate the time to an animal.” Yet, as the COVID surge became more contained, the effects not only impacted people around the world but pets also. “Some animals really got used to having their humans home 24/7. As they went back to the workforce, everybody had to reprioritize how they’re doing things again [which caused] some separation anxiety.” 

           If there is anything that animal shelters such ARNO, Louisiana ASPCA, and Metairie Humane Shelter have learned from the hardships that they have endured in the past couple of years, is that in order for shelters to succeed in their mission to protect the animals in the New Orleans community, everyone plays a role. Whether you are an animal lover or not, your actions have the potential to change the lives of animals around the area as we know it.

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