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Cat Houses

Feline foster care gives cats a place to wait for a home.



Except this is not just another entertainment center, it's The Cat Room where Wagoner fosters sick and injured older cats, and the occasional dog rescued from the shelters and euthanasia through her organization, Cat Adoption and Rescue Efforts (CARE). Wagoner, a 51-year-old engineer described as "Schindler" by friends, keeps from eight to 10 cats besides her own four. She's trained as a veterinary assistant and focuses her efforts, she says, on "the animals no one else wants." Working with area vets, Wagoner nurses these cats back to health and finds them good homes.

Welcome to the world of animal foster care.

In Richmond, numerous rescue groups rely on volunteers who take in cats, dogs, and sometimes goats, bunnies, potbellied pigs and horses. The animals have been dumped at the pound by owners, left on the streets, been pulled out of abusive or negligent situations, or saved from being gassed or put to sleep by lethal injection.

The animal foster parents offer a safe and clean environment where the animals are loved, fed, given medical care, housebroken, groomed, taken to the vet and nursed until they can be sterilized and put up for adoption.

Foster care has caught the attention of politicians. Both houses of the General Assembly have passed Senate Bill 260, which goes into effect July 1, that gives the state veterinarian's office the responsibility to regulate foster care.

Also, the bill requires animal rescue agencies to inspect foster-care homes and certify they meet the standards of care before they place an animal there. Each group must register annually with the state vet's office and foster homes must certify to the state vet twice a year they are meeting the standards.

Foster parents will also be expected to comply with the animal limitation required by each locality. In the Richmond Metro area this is: Richmond City, no limit; Henrico County, three adult animals; Chesterfield, two adult dogs, unlimited cats; Goochland, unlimited.

Larger groups such as the SPCA support the legislation, saying it assures the animals of high standards of care.

But smaller rescue groups, more inclined to focus on the animals no one else wants, and struggling for dollars and volunteers already, insist SB260 will discourage foster parents and place a heavy administrative burden on these struggling groups. They plan to lobby against the legislation.

Politics aside, Wagoner is committed to caring for the cats — which sometimes become a permanent part of her family. Take Sweet Pea, a black-and-white ball of silky fluff whose teen-age owners wanted to see what would happen when they sprayed ammonia in their pet's eyes. Sweet Pea is now permanently blinded. Wagoner rescued her, nursed her and has now built Sweet Pea her Cat Room, where she can play with toys, nap and exercise. Sweet Pea is joined by other seriously injured cats — one was kicked so hard his insides were rearranged — that are recuperating in various cages or on sofas.

Wagoner figures her large brood of foster cats calls for seven hours of care a day, most of that time taken up by driving back and forth to the vet. She also figures she spends about $10 per cat a day.

"I'm not a fanatic," she says. "I'm just driven to protect. I see what these animals go through. And even then, they're still so trusting." She says the three most common reasons cats are injured are by being hit by cars, being attacked by dogs and, especially, being abused. More than 70 percent of the rescue cases result from abuse, Wagoner says.

Animals are such easy prey because they tend to forgive and forget. Just walk into a local pound and see the cats with hopeful expressions and the dogs wagging their tails.

Robin Starr, executive director of the Richmond SPCA, concedes the SPCA's new "no-kill" policy (the SPCA will no longer euthanize) will increase the need for more foster parents. She defends the "no-kill" approach. "This community has the tools to control the animal population through spay/neuter," she says. For example, recently some local groups, though not the SPCA, have started trap, neuter and release programs for feral cats.

The Richmond SPCA is the largest provider of foster care, with 75 foster-care providers who helped out 540 animals last year. CARE has eight foster homes, which has helped 500 older cats be adopted since CARE's debut in September. That's when it became an affiliate of Save Our Shelters (S.O.S.), a statewide group rescuing dogs from pounds. S.O.S. has 30 foster homes that rescued over 300 dogs last year.

Each of these groups works hard to screen foster parents by home visits and interviews on animal experience and family situations. They also offer training sessions and are able to cover expenses for the animals' food, litter, cages, vet bills — even toys, unless the foster parent chooses to pay for these.

CARE, S.O.S. and the SPCA started their foster programs a few years ago (although Wagoner has been "fostering" for more than a decade). They have built up networks of volunteers who specialize in different kinds of foster care. Some take in mother animals and their babies until the babies are weaned and ready for adoption; some take care of the elderly, sick, or injured; still others care for puppies and kittens without mothers — the most emotional and demanding care, because many of them die anyway.

All fosters have a common goal: to get the animals in good enough shape physically and mentally to make them a happy addition to a family.

One person interviewed for this article, a woman who keeps two more dogs than the three allowed in Henrico County, declined to be identified since she is not in compliance with the recently passed Senate legislation. Her animals are exceedingly well-cared-for, but she says she fears she will lose them.

And the animals keep coming. Currently, the SPCA has 150 cats and dogs up for adoption; CARE has 75, including kittens; and S.O.S. has 66 dogs.

Terry Wagoner says that after 13 years of caring for unwanted animals, she is still not jaded. What she sees still hurts and causes her to cry. She tells herself to "suck it up. You've got to get through this for the animals. They're God's creatures." S

If you are interested in finding out how to become a foster parent, please contact: The Richmond SPCA, 643-6785, ext. 28; CARE (for cats), 288-9797, and S.O.S. (for dogs), 358-7499.

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