Families Turn to Foster Animals as Isolation Buddies During the Pandemic

Daisy, a 2-month-old boxer terrier mix, made herself right at home in Alyson Duncan’s home after Duncan fostered her from Greater Birmingham Humane Society. (Source: Alyson Duncan)

When Alyson Duncan returns home from the hospital where she works as a nurse, she is greeted by Daisy, her new 2-month-old boxer terrier mix.

“Her howling is one of the funniest things,” said Duncan, who lives with her husband and their other dog. “We will cry laughing tears because the howling is just hysterical.”

The Duncans are among those who chose to add new, temporary family members as they settled into their new daily routines during the coronavirus pandemic.

Though Daisy is what’s considered an adoptable dog and wouldn’t usually be a foster candidate, she was one of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society’s many animals who were placed into temporary homes so the adoption center could be closed and repurposed as a pet pantry.

The pet pantry, which opened April 2, and supplies food and supplies to residents in need because of the coronavirus shutdown. It rehomed more than 200 animals in its last days, and the animals that could not be put in a home were transferred to its animal clinic in Hoover.

GBHS CEO Allison Black Cornelius posted a video on Facebook on March 20 urging people to apply as foster parents for animals in the shelter. “I’m starting to feel the effects at the shelter along with the rest of the staff of COVID-19” Cornelius said in her post. “As our staff continues to shrink, we’re going to get into a dire situation.”

“There’s been a kind of national push to help local shelters,” said Lindsey Mays, director of marketing for the humane society. “We were so blessed to have so many people respond to it and say, ‘Yeah, I want to open up my home.’”

Among the many people who signed up to take in animals was Duncan, who saw Cornelius’ message and decided to apply as a first-time fosterer.

Millie, right, with her new sister, Daisy. She was fostered first by Patricia Merritt and then adopted by Kaylee Kennedy. (Source: Patricia Merritt)

“Our dog, Kelly, loves other dogs and we haven’t been able to go meet with her other friends in the neighborhood with our social distancing,” said Duncan.

Three days after she submitted the online application, Duncan picked up Daisy. Along with providing a companion for Kelly, “We thought it would give me a distraction from the stress at work,” she said.

Like Duncan, many individuals who have taken in pets in the past several weeks are new to fostering. According to Heather Echols, a volunteer with GBHS, its fostering membership has increased 78% in 28 days.

Some of the new fosterers have intended to find permanent homes for the new animals. Patricia Merritt decided to take home a beagle mix named Millie after a friend mentioned to her the need for more fosterers, and then she posted about Millie on social media with the hopes of finding her a permanent home.

“One of my former students reached out literally within an hour and said they were thinking of getting another dog,” said Merritt.

Many others, according to Mays, originally wished to adopt new pets and are fostering as an alternative, with the possibility of adopting their animals for free after the foster period ends.

As a member of Junior League of Birmingham, a women’s organization that aims to promote volunteering and community development in Birmingham, Jennifer Thomas filled out a foster application because she wanted to help support a fellow nonprofit in its time of need.

Thomas, a first-time fosterer, and her family had filled out the online application, selected their dog, and picked up 4-year-old Cosmo from the adoption center one day before it closed.

“Since we’ve basically quarantined ourselves, I thought it would be good for our family and good for the dog, too,” said Thomas, whose family of four is working or taking classes from home.

Cosmos with two members of his foster family, Colton Thomas, 3 years old, and Daniel Thomas, 8 years old. (Source: Bham DC Photography)

“Most likely, we’re going to keep Cosmo. He’s been such a great dog and a good fit for the family,” she said.

Another new fosterer, Ashley Vourlotis saw posts about fostering on Nextdoor, a neighborhood social network forum. Vourlotis previously had thought about adopting a dog and had volunteered with GBHS. She decided to become a foster parent now because of the humane society’s increased need.

“I’m back from college and so I’m home all day, plus my mom and brother are home all day. It’s the perfect time to give a dog all of our attention,” she said.

The process was especially short for Vourlotis, who said she filled out the online application, attended a virtual orientation for new foster families, and then picked up her foster dog, Gracie, all in a matter of two or three days.

Vourlotis thinks that the new addition to her household has made her practice of social distancing “10 times more manageable.”

“She’s definitely made me more productive and happier,” said Vourlotis, who has enjoyed getting to walk Gracie twice a day. “She just brings a lot of energy and joy into our house.”

The GBHS location on Snow Drive for now has been converted to a pet pantry. People in Birmingham and surrounding cities who have been laid off or furloughed and cannot afford to feed their pets at the moment can get animal food and supplies. It relies on donations from individuals and other shelters to operate. Mays explained in a Facebook video that people are advised to apply to use the pantry at GBHS’s website and then pick up food at the pantry’s drive through. But they may apply in person if they wish.

Ashley Vourlotis with her new dog, Gracie. (Source: Annette Vourlotis)

Mays said the humane society also still is taking applications for foster families, who can pick up animals at the clinic in Hoover. And people still can bring in stray animals to that location.

“We still keep getting animals and we’ll have people who find strays that will still need to go to foster homes,” she said.

Merritt, who is fostering her second dog from the humane society after successfully finding Millie a permanent home, said, “I think people just want to help. This is a way to help and still maintain social distancing guidelines.”

“It gives you something to focus on,” she said. “The first couple days you bring them in you’re taking them out a lot to make sure they’re OK and not scared. That way you don’t feel so cooped up.”