THINGS EVERY POTENTIAL ANIMAL RESCUER / FOSTERER SHOULD KNOW
By Wong Ee Lynn
The rise in the number of animal rescue organisations in Malaysia is an encouraging sign that our society is progressing and extending help and concern to all living beings. Animal rescuers and fosterers play an important role in providing care for abandoned, stray, sick and injured animals that would otherwise suffer on the streets or be euthanised in overcrowded pounds and shelters.
Many individuals who start their own animal rescue or fostering initiatives are also empowered by the autonomy it affords-- there is no hierarchy and you don't have to answer to someone else's schedules or comply with an organisation's rules and regulations.
However, rescuing and fostering are not without its challenges. Many rescuers and fosterers cease their activities due to financial, physical and emotional burnout. It is not uncommon to hear of rescuers and fosterers eventually abandoning their foster animals in shelters and relinquishing all responsibility over their former charges. In such situations, it is almost always the animals who suffer. Lack of resources, lack of preparedness and lack of foresight by rescuers and fosterers frequently result in animals being abandoned by the very people who undertook responsibility for their lives and safety.
Apart from knowledge about the feeding and basic care of animals and the importance of vaccination and neutering, here are some of the things every potential animal rescuer / fosterer must know and be prepared for:
1. Every rescuer / fosterer should ideally have an independent source of income from which s/he can pay for vet bills, pet food and other expenses. The only other feasible alternative should be a reliable and constant benefactor such as a close family member or spouse.
A rescuer / fosterer who does not have a steady source of income should create their own fundraising opportunities such as by holding jumble sales, raffle draws or selling baked goods and garden produce. Please remember that there are limits as to how much and how frequently your friends and family are able to contribute to your rescue work. Rescuers who make incessant appeals for cash will soon find their friends distancing themselves from them once Donor/Sponsor Fatigue sets in.
Always know how much money you are able to spare, and make a modest estimate of how much more you are able to raise, BEFORE you take an animal in. Having the mindset that you can always take an animal in first and "look for the money later" is irresponsible. Animals have been surrendered to shelters or abandoned in vet clinics when their rescuers are unable to pay the bills.
I would advise extreme caution against the strategy of requesting the adopter to reimburse you for all the expenses incurred in caring for your rescued animal, as it deters potential adopters from giving your rescued animal a good home. It also effectively ensures that ill and injured animals are left living with their rescuers for years while healthy animals find homes first.
Look at this from the adopter's perspective: Would you rather pay RM50 to adopt a healthy young dog, or RM900 to adopt a formerly injured one?
There is nothing wrong with requesting donations in cash and kind from the adopter (a kind and conscientious one will often offer to give you a little something for your troubles anyway) or fixing a minimum amount, let's say of RM50 - 100, as an "adoption fee", to cover the cost of vaccination and neutering, but imposing a differential adoption fee for rescued animals on the basis of the expenses they have incurred is unwise and unfair to both the rescued animal and the potential adopter.
2. Unless you live in your own landed property, ensure that you have the express consent and knowledge of your family members, housemates, landlord, apartment joint management body and other relevant parties BEFORE you start bringing animals home. You should not have to sneak animals in and out of your home with the constant fear of eviction looming over your head. It's not fair to your rescued animal in the event s/he has to get surrendered to a shelter or pound because you didn't think over this matter carefully.
3. In the event a family member or housemate who had previously consented to the animal coming home develops an allergic reaction, ensure that you have an alternative place for your animal companion to live in.
Often, allergy symptoms can be alleviated by moving the animals to an outdoor living area such as a sheltered part of the porch.
If you can afford it, boarding at a vet is often a good short-term solution.
Alternatively, you will have to find a willing family member or friend who is able to host your animal companion until s/he can be rehomed or safely released. If you are lucky enough to find someone so generous as to offer you space in his/her property, be responsible! Feed, exercise and clean up after your charges daily. Don't foist the responsibility on the hapless homeowner. Carry out favours for the homeowner, such as mowing the lawn or running errands, to demonstrate your gratitude for his/her kindness.
4. Be prepared for the eventuality that a rescued animal may have to live with you for months, and even years, before s/he gets adopted, especially if s/he is injured, ill or diseased.
Think before you take on this responsibility: Can you afford the vet bills? Are you able to adjust your working hours and other commitments? Do you have your own transport? How will your family members, housemates or landlord take the news? How will your existing companion animals feel about having yet another long-term housemate? Are you planning on moving house or emigrating anytime in the future? In the event no-one adopts your rescued animal, are you able to keep her/him?
Do not make the mistake of taking in an injured animal with the intention of only keeping the animal long enough to seek treatment for the injury. Once you undertake to bring an animal to the vet, you must assume responsibility for her/him until s/he gets rehomed or released. Consider these questions first: Where will s/he live after being discharged from the vet? What if s/he needs follow-up treatments or physiotherapy? What if s/he may never safely live outdoors again?
A good rescuer would start looking for an adopter and alternative care providers as soon as possible.
5. There is no doubt that rescuers act out of kindness, but are you being kind to your housemates and existing companion animals? Many cats and dogs get stressed out by the presence of newcomers.
Timid and nervous animals may display even more behavioural problems, such as inappropriate urination and overgrooming in cats. Dogs may end up barking excessively, fighting with one another or even snapping at humans.
Previously friendly neighbours may start complaining to the local authorities. Housemates may lose patience and spouses and children may feel neglected. Employers and colleagues may get exasperated with your frequent need to take emergency leave to rush yet another animal to the vet.
Avoid biting off more than you can chew. Rescuers and fosterers should ideally not foster another animal until a previous rescued animal has been rehomed. In urgent cases, it is always wise to find a willing vet, friend or family member who can provide the new rescued animal with a temporary place to stay until your existing rescued animal is rehomed.
6. A rescuer should ideally possess his/her own mode of transport, or at the very least, have the agreement of a spouse, family member or close friend who is willing and able to drive him/her to the nearest vet in the event of an emergency.
For this reason, many animal shelters frequently do not allow students and children under 18 to foster young animals for them unless an adult with a valid driving licence is added as a party to the fostering agreement.
7. Be prepared to prioritise and make heartbreakingly difficult decisions: Should you continue treatment for a critically diseased animal if there is a risk of infecting your other animals? If resources are extremely limited, do you save a sick animal or 5 healthy ones? Would you choose to save an aggressive young animal over a compliant but timid older one? If an animal has been suffering for a long time despite your best efforts, would euthanasia be the humane and merciful thing to do, or would it fill you with lifelong guilt? Do you proceed with an abortion for a heavily pregnant stray animal if you knew that you would be able to rehome her but not all her babies?
8. Have the contact information of at least several vets at hand. Remember that veterinarians are our friends. Many vets already offer special rates to animal rescuers. Do not fight with your veterinarian. If you disagree with his/her recommendation or the treatment carried out, just pay the bill and bring your rescued animal elsewhere. If you wish to request for a discount, do so civilly and reasonably.
Vets and other clients find out fairly quickly if you have not paid your vet bills. Word gets around fairly quickly about unpleasant clients and you may find doors being slammed in your face.
Being rude and arrogant to humans doesn't persuade other people that you are a better animal lover. Failing to honour your word about payment of bills also will not endear you to vets, donors and other animal rescuers.
Remember that when you bring your animal to the vet for treatment, you are essentially entering into a contractual agreement, and your vet can take legal action against you for arrears in bills. Even the most sympathetic and patient of veterinarians need to take care of their economic interests if they want to stay in the business.
9. It is important to have a strong network of friends. Many friends are often ready to contribute in any way they can: as adopters, donors, graphic designers, adoption/rehoming promoters, fosterers, part-time pet sitters, volunteers and shoulders to cry on.
You should maintain all friendships and express gratitude for any help offered.
Be mindful not to take advantage of the kindness of your friends. Do not be excessively optimistic that a friend who contributed the first two times will continue to support your rescue efforts financially for the rest of his or her life. Always find your own solutions to your own problems, and keep as many options open as possible. Do not get angry with a friend who is unable to adopt, sponsor or foster your rescued animal.
Do not terminate friendships just because someone is no longer able to contribute the way he/she used to.
Being an animal rescuer does not give you the licence to behave disgracefully towards humans. Most people are struggling to do the best they can and to provide for themselves and their loved ones. Remember, they didn't force you to take up animal rescue work. If you assume the responsibility of rescuing and fostering animals, then you should find your own solutions and create your own back-up plans.
10. I cannot emphasise this enough: DO NOT HOARD.
It is very tempting to keep all the animals that you have fostered or rescued. The emotional bond is so strong that you are convinced you and your rescued animal will pine away and die without each other.
However, empirically speaking, this is often not the case. Animals can and do adjust to new caregivers and families. Your rescued animal will survive and thrive with his/her new adoptive family.
Animals don't have to be rehomed together with their mothers or siblings -- in nature, the bond between mammal and bird babies and their parents and siblings do weaken as they grow bigger and stronger and they are able to make their own way in the world when they achieve maturity.
Hoarding animals puts an immense strain on your resources and is unfair to your housemates and existing animal companions. Animals in overcrowded living conditions are often stressed out and they become hypervigilant over the constant invasions of their territories.
You should always make every effort to find good homes for your rescued and foster animals, and remain in touch with their adopters as much as possible without being intrusive and over-anxious. You must trust the new adopter to provide the best care possible for your rescued and foster animals. Do not call frequently to check on them or remind them of heartworm prevention tablets and other miscellaneous items, or you may well find your animal being returned to you by harassed adopters. The occasional festive greeting and a non-passive aggressive "How is Putih doing?" is good enough a way of checking on your former charges.
Remember that hoarding is not a sign of love, but a sign of anxiety and insecurity.
Before you decide to keep yet another one of your rescued/foster animals, ask yourself: "What happens if I am evicted, or have to move into an apartment? What if I fall sick or get badly injured or die? Can my family members take in all 30 of my cats? What if one of my rescuees have an incurable infectious disease and infects all the others? What if one develops a terminal illness that costs a lot to treat? (It would cost less to care for 5 than 25 in the event this happens) What happens in the event of a divorce, or if I get pregnant? What happens if my child or parent develops a severe allergy to my animals?" In these worst-case scenarios, remember that it is easier and takes less time to rehome 3 than to rehome 30.
If your fear is that your rescued animal may one day forget you, then your reasons for wanting to hold on to him or her may be quite selfish. Many years ago, when I started rescuing and fostering, I developed this secular Fosterer's Prayer: "I will never forget you. You will always have a place in my heart, and in my home in case things don't work out. But I pray you will forget me, and forget me soon, so you can learn to love your new family."
Despite its challenges, rescuing/fostering is a rewarding and fulfilling experience, both for the rescuer and the rescued animal. Even for temporary fosterers, the experience you gain and skills you develop will also stand you in good stead if you wish to adopt and/or rescue animals on your own initiative in future.
I wish to express my sincere thanks to all animal rescuers and fosterers for helping animals, and in so doing, helping our community and the environment.