As we discussed in my last post, “So You Want to be a Foster Home,” the hardest part of fostering is letting go. For every foster pet, there comes a time when she has gained all she can from foster care, and needs to find a permanent, adoptive home. It’s bittersweet, knowing that you’ve done a great thing by giving an animal a second chance, but having to allow a pet you’ve come to love to move on. It’s important to allow yourself time to grieve, and to celebrate your foster pet’s new home.
Understand the Adoption Process
Many foster parents find that taking an active role in the process of adoption helps ease their foster pets’ transition from foster home to adoptive home. While every rescue has a different policy on the amount of weight a foster parent’s opinion carries during the adoption process, and how involved you can be, if you think that helping to choose your foster pet’s forever home would make letting go easier for you, seek out a rescue that allows this. Many rescues, particularly those that operate primarily through a network of foster homes, allow foster parents to review adoption applications for their foster pets and nix applicants who sound like a poor match.
However, busier shelters and open-admission shelters most often require that foster pets be returned to the shelter for adoption, unless they happen to find a new home during the foster period. While most people find returning a foster pet to a noisy, hectic shelter environment difficult, the busiest shelters are most in need of help. Foster parents who volunteer for shelters with open admission policies often are the only thing standing between vulnerable pets, from the very young to the very old, and euthanasia at the time of intake. Some municipal shelters are unable to accomodate pets with special needs, and, in the absence of an available foster home will euthanize pets unable to thrive in a shelter environment.
Even if you must return your foster pet to the shelter and can’t be involved in the adoption process, know that the employees see many adoption applications every day, and become adept at ensuring that each pet is matched with the right adopter. You may be able to leave your contact information and request that the adopter call to update you on your foster pet’s progress. Some shelters will allow you the option of taking a foster pet back in if it does poorly in the shelter or isn’t adopted initially.
Remind yourself often that by fostering, you gave a pet without many options a chance to be loved. Look at your own pets, and think about how much you love them, and imagine how happy your former foster pet will be to find his own loving family. Understand that while your foster pet will remember you, and may well be grieving your loss as you’re grieving his, animals are incredibly resilient and adaptable. Your foster pet will fit into his new family and be a happy family member in very short order, once the right match is made.
Take All the Time You Need
With the constant demands of rescue work, you may feel pressured to immediately open your home to another foster pet after releasing your previous foster pet for adoption. If you’re ready to make that committment again, go for it; some foster parents find that adding a new foster pet immediately distracts them from the absence of a foster pet who has moved on to an adoptive home. However, if you’re still missing your last foster pet and experiencing feelings like grief and anger, don’t be afraid to say, “Not this time,” to your Foster Coordinator. Every shelter volunteer has had the experience of becoming attached to a pet and grieving its loss despite knowing that it will be loved by a wonderful family.
If your Foster Coordinator or other shelter contact pressures you to accept another foster pet before you’re ready, that’s a red flag indicating the foster program doesn’t respect the emotional needs of its volunteers. Good foster parents are among the most precious resources in any animal rescue program. Shelters and rescues that understand this will honor your feelings and needs. If you’re ever pressured with scare tactics like, “Oh, that’s okay, but you know, we’ll have to put him down if a foster parent can’t take him today,” or, “We’re running out of space at the shelter and may have to euthanize some adoptable pets,” consider fostering for a different organization. Your role in the group’s mission is to care for foster pets if and when you are emotionally, physically, and financially able to do so, and no more. Asking a foster parent to overextend him or herself leads to foster burnout, which is all too common even under the best of circumstances.
Take all the time you need to cope with your foster pet’s transition into a new home. It may help to ask the shelter to connect you with other foster parents. People who’ve never shared the experience of providing foster care to pets in need aren’t likely to understand how you’re feeling. Every foster parent sometimes hears, “So what? It’s not like he died or anything, right?” from a friend who doesn’t foster. It’s difficult for non-foster parents to comprehend the emotional investment put into each foster pet. Surround yourself with people who do understand, and make sure you have closure and are feeling prepared before you take on another foster pet.
It Gets Easier, But Not Easy
If you stop missing your foster pets when they leave, it’s probably time to stop fostering, at least for a while. The loving care that makes a foster program so valuable is the same thing that makes it hard to let go. However, the first time is the hardest, and it gets easier from then on. You won’t stop loving every foster pet, but you will learn to better understand your own feelings, and find out what makes you feel better after releasing a foster pet for adoption. You’ll also likely begin to get messages from adopters of your past foster pets, thanking you for a wonderful family member. Every time a pet must move on from your home, thinking about the great families who’ve adopted your past foster pets can help to make the experience more sweet and less bitter.
You’ll probably have some foster pets that you just don’t like. That’s normal; don’t beat yourself up if you find there’s the occasional yappy dog or reclusive cat that just doesn’t mesh with your personality, and you’re not too sorry to see them go. You’ll also have some favorite foster pets who “click” with you like they’ve always been part of your family. If you know a favorite foster pet will be moving on soon, take extra time to make memories and take photos together, and know that you’ll feel the loss more acutely. However, the majority of your foster pets will be in the middle– dearly loved, but closure will come quickly after they go on to an adoptive home.
I’ve always said that the only true foster failure is the failure of someone with sufficient time, love, and space, to foster at all. However, the term “foster failure” in the rescue world most often refers to adopting one’s own foster pet. In other words, a foster parent who adopts her own foster has failed to “foster,” because the pet never moved on to another home. Foster failure is an occupational hazard and, chances are, it’ll happen to you eventually, unless you foster for one of the handful of rescues that handle this phenomenon by simply not permitting foster parents to adopt their own foster pets.
However, even if you know and accept that you’ll eventually “foster fail,” try not to do it with your first foster pet. If you fail the first time, you’re far less likely ever to foster successfully. Let that first foster pet go. Is your love for her worth relinquishing the space in your home to save dozens of lives over the next year? It’s worth celebrating any time a pet finds a permanent home, but it’s worth an even bigger celebration if you choose to let a foster go, knowing that your time, space, and love could be spent saving more lives.
However, no matter the outcome, or how many pets you can foster before you know that one has come to stay, give yourself a big hug and a pat on the back for fostering. If every person with pets opened their home to a foster pet, even if many of these people “foster failed” on the first try, shelters would be nearly empty.