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Kittens wait to be adopted at the Athens Area Humane Society in Athens, Georgia on Saturday, April 10, 2021. Each spring, animal services are innundated with litters of homeless kittens during "kitten season" as cats enter their breeding season with warmer weather. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; taylormckenziephotography.com)

Varsha Ramachandra, a pre-vet sophomore at the University of Georgia, has been a volunteer with Athens-Clarke County Animal Services since August of her freshman year. Last September, Ramachandra started working with Sugar, an incredibly fearful dog, who was only brave enough to walk about 50 feet from her living space.

Realizing that she could make more progress with the Sugar if she had more time with her, Ramachandra began the four month process of fostering her. Now, Sugar is living with her forever family, and Ramachandra said that you would never know that she had been such a timid dog just a few short months ago.

Stories like Sugar’s are made possible due to pet fostering, a system where a shelter or animal organization works with individuals to place pets in homes, keeping them out of the shelter. This process socializes the animal, helps the shelter better know the animal’s personality and enriches the pet and foster parent’s quality of life.

Going through the process

Mary Rhodes, the foster coordinator for Athens Area Humane Society, said at AAHS they have tried to make fostering as accessible as possible to encourage people who might want to do it. The process to begin fostering includes filling out an online application, attending a Zoom training and a virtual home inspection to ensure the quality of a foster home.

After the intake process is complete, Rhodes formally adds the home to the AAHS foster program Facebook page. There, foster parents can see what pets become available to take home and if the animal would be a good fit for their household.

Jillian Fishburn, the coordinator at Circle of Friends Animal Society, said once foster homes have completed their inspection, they get matched with animals that fit their fostering experience level.

“If somebody comes in and they say ‘I want to start slow. I've never done this before,’ we will give them a one [or] two year old cat — somebody easy,” Fishburn said.

Once an animal enters a foster home, both AAHS and COFAS cover the costs of food, litter and veterinary care. Fishburn said that despite reduced funds due to limited fundraising and lower adoption rates in the pandemic, COFAS was able to still support the same amount of animals as the year prior.

With the start of spring, animal shelters have entered what is known as kitten season. This is when many stray cats enter heat and give birth to litters of kittens. As these newborn kittens enter shelters, there is an increased demand for foster parents experienced in taking care of kittens.

Fishburn says the main surge of kittens comes in the spring, but kitten levels and a need for kitten fosters also remain high during the summer and early fall. Because cats are able to reproduce at four months old, there can be three waves of litters over the course of one year, she said.

How students play a part

A portion of the fostering community in Athens is composed of UGA students. Students living in off-campus, pet-friendly housing have the option to take in animals from shelter programs or animals generally in need of a temporary home.

Rhodes said that she can tell that students make up a “pretty large part” of the AAHS foster base because the level of foster activity decreases during summer and winter breaks when students are less likely to be in Athens. This can make it difficult to deal with high volumes of kittens later in the year, but luckily students are present to foster during the spring kitten season.

UGA students available to foster during kitten season are important to meet the demand for foster homes. For COFAS, a completely volunteer-run foster nonprofit, a limited number of foster homes means they have to turn away kittens they receive from overcrowded shelters.

“Unfortunately the reality of the situation is if we don't have enough space, [the kittens] have to stay at the shelter,” Fishburn said.

Fishburn said that the majority of students who volunteer to foster with COFAS are graduate students, but fostering is also an opportunity for undergraduates to experience life with one or multiple cats without committing to a full-time pet.

For UGA students like Ramachandra who may miss their pets at home but aren’t settled enough in Athens to commit to a pet of their own, fostering is a rewarding program.

“As much as I'd love to adopt a dog right now ... I don't think I'm at the right spot in my life where I want to commit to adopting a dog just because obviously I don't know what my future in the next few years is necessarily going to look like,” Ramachandra said.

Ramachandra also said that fostering a pet can provide a source of companionship for students like her who miss their childhood pets.

“For the people that love and miss the companionship and the snuggles and all of that with their pets at home, you definitely get that side of it without the worry of what's going to happen to this pet,” Ramachandra said.

Morgan McBride, a senior animal science major, has been fostering cats independently, without a shelter supplying the cats, since last May and has found the experience incredibly rewarding.

“ I just feel like seeing them go from this helpless cat that is deserving of a home and doesn’t have one [to] finally getting [a home] that just makes it feel worth it to me,” McBride said.

Fostering animals in Athens provides a way for animals to have a safe and comfortable space, while offering Athens residents, especially UGA students, a way to give back to their community.

“Fostering provides a really unique opportunity for a member of the community to develop an individual connection with a pet that can really radically change that pets time in the shelter system,” Rhodes said. “Rather than having to stay and live in a pretty stressful environment … fosters are able to provide kind of an oasis away from that.”