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Volunteer Foster Care Program Finds Happy Homes For Pets

By Pamela Duque

Read on MiamiHerald.com

Dexter, a black Labrador mix, had been living at the Humane Society of Greater Miami for four of his five years until Larry Rizzo became the dog’s foster ”parent.”

”He ended up being the sweetest dog,” said Rizzo, who lives in Miami Beach and started volunteering for the shelter about a year ago. ”It was tough to get him adopted because most people want the younger dogs, the puppies.”

Foster care is one of the volunteer programs offered by the Humane Society of Greater Miami’s shelter at 16101 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami Beach, as well as the Humane Society of Broward County and the Tri-County Humane Society in Boca Raton.

The nonprofit organizations rely on private donations and fundraising and follow a no-kill policy.

”We look for donors and sponsors and people to participate, so that we can be able to provide and guarantee the life of these animals,” said Summer Miller, special events manager at the Humane Society of Greater Miami.

Officials at all three shelters, which house 250 to 300 pets each, said the need for pet foster care increases each year, with more animals coming in.

”It is tough right now,” said Pamela D’Addio, volunteer coordinator at the Tri-County Humane Society.

”Sixty percent of our dogs are turned in by their owners. We hear anything from, ‘I’m moving to ‘My kids are allergic’ to ‘I lost my house.’ ”

On weekends, Rizzo, 43, started taking Dexter to his home in Miami Beach, where he lives with Brooklyn, a 3-year-old beagle he rescued from a puppy mill.

”We play at the beach or just sit on the couch and watch TV,” Rizzo said.

Simple interaction makes a difference in the life of an animal, shelter officials said.

”People don’t realize the importance of socializing a pet,” said Sandy Guerra, director of operations at the Humane Society of Greater Miami. ”The more interaction a pet has with different people — men, women, children, young, old — the more social they are.”

That interaction can also lead to adoption. After seven months of foster care, Dexter found a home when one of Rizzo’s friends saw him walking the dog on the beach.

Rizzo visits the shelter once or twice a month. He takes dogs to the playground area outside the shelter, but he also likes to take them home with him.

It’s at night when the animals need love the most, he said. ”After 7 p.m., the lights go out and the animals are alone.”

Volunteers can just take an animal for a walk or a weekend vacation from the shelter. Many times, foster parents care for animals that are recuperating from an injury or operation.

Lacey Freeman, foster care coordinator at the Humane Society of Broward County, said she interviews interested volunteers to determine if they are ready for foster care. ”I think some people think they will take just a dog. Others do realize they get babies,” she said.

They may wind up caring for young puppies or kittens that lost their mothers and need somebody to feed them. Usually they need fostering for two weeks to a month, depending on the animal’s age and health.

”That can’t just be done at the shelter,” said Susan Richards, administrative assistant at the Tri-County Humane Society. ”What the volunteers give is love and shelter.”

For the Forte family in Weston, being a foster parent for the Humane Society of Broward County was one way to have a pet — on a short-term basis.

”We travel often, and it’s not fair for the pet to be left by itself or to be moving around,” said Helen Forte, 45.

She and her daughters, Antonia, 15, and Michaela, 10, usually care for two to four kittens for a month. Forte sees it as a way of showing her daughters that having a pet is a big responsibility.

”It’s been a great thing because they’ve also learned a lot,” said Forte, who divides the chores between the two girls, who pick names for the kittens that match their personalities and appearance.

”Some of them are playful, more feisty, or affectionate. They are all different, like the people you meet,” said Antonia, a sophomore at Cypress Bay High School. The hardest part is bringing them back to the shelter.

”I know that they are going to a family that’s going to take care of them and love them as much as we do,” she said. ”At least I hope so.”

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