“There’s no feeling on earth like being deployed,” says Lorie Sabo, senior resource volunteer for the United States Army Reserve Family Program. “You’re leaving the security of your home to an uncertain future, pulled away from friends and family.” Sabo should know; her husband is retired General Thomas Sabo, and her son and daughter-in-law are both overseas. Her son-in-law is a retired Air Force reservist with 20 years of service.
During Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, when their country called on them, thousands of deployed soldiers were forced to sacrifice their pets. They simply could not find a contingency plan for their pets, so they were relinquished to shelters. The lucky ones were adopted out, most were euthanized.
“To so many, our pets are like our children,” says Sabo of Buffalo, NY. “Being asked to serve your country is one thing ” being forced to give up your pet forever is another.”
After September 11th, Steve Albin and Dr. Linda Mercer thought about finding a way to fix this problem by offering foster care for pets of those deployed in the military. “At that point, we were thinking about Afghanistan,” Albin says.
Albin, who lives in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, had been operating www.netpets.org since 1996, a website offering information about rescue groups and choosing the right pet. Mercer, a Persian cat breeder for seventeen years and retired physician from Crystal Lake, Illinois had been overseeing www.felinerescue.net, a sight that helps people to adopt unwanted cats. Albin began the Military Pets FOSTER Project through his website in December 2001.
At around that time, Albin received a telephone call from an Army base chaplain about finding a foster home for a German Shepherd dog. He did. Sabo, who is from Buffalo, New York, learned from that chaplain about Albin’s one success, and she was thrilled.
She helped to promote the program within the ranks of the military, and within a few months, Albin was encouraged to start fostering pets of soldiers being deployed. At the same time he began to accept volunteers willing to foster pets, who signed up on the website.
“There’s more of an emphasis within the military concerning family wellness,” says Sabo. “We actually understand that pets are members of the family and that they have an amazing ability to help heal. No matter what the deployed soldier’s mission is, there has to be some adjustment and maybe some healing when they return ” pets can help in that process.”
Albin says, so far, he’s provided foster homes for well over a thousand dogs, not to mention a pot-bellied pig, a boa constrictor, and various kinds of birds and horses. Because Mercer has expertise at fostering cats, she handles only cats through her website.
Albin tries very hard to find homes near where the deployed soldier lives, so the same veterinarian and groomer can be used for that pet ” and for practical reasons, so the deployed soldier and the pet have minimal travel.
Whenever possible, Albin also tries to match people with a pet that seems most suitable for their lifestyle. For example, he is unlikely to place a Mastiff dog into a home with two diminutive Pomeranians.
Mercer’s web site works differently. She doesn’t get involved personally in the matches. The deployed personnel have access to a database of potential foster homes, and they decide who to choose. Mercer says about a thousand cats have been fostered through her site.
“There’s no question, at least some of these cats would have just been let outside to fend for themselves, or given up to shelters,” Mercer says.
Albin adds, “I’m not surprised at the response ” it’s overwhelming how many people have opened their hearts and their homes.” Albin says foster parents have ranged in age from high school students (who can only do so with parental consent) to people in their ’80s. All foster parents sign a letter of agreement.
Terri in Tennessee is fostering a Labrador Retriever and a Beagle mix (the Department of Defense and all branches of the military have asked the media to protect the anonymity of those who are fostering pets). Both dogs belong to a service man who Terri assumes is now in the Middle East. She also has her own 10-year old Boxer.
She first heard about the Military Pets FOSTER Project from a link on the Internet at a web site for Boxer rescue. “I hate wars, but admire and appreciate the people fighting overseas,” she says. “And I can’t imagine leaving my dog for a weekend. Really, if my mom can’t watch my dog, I don’t go. These people didn’t have that option. I’m sure they feel better knowing their pets are well cared for.”
The dogs’ owner gave Terri enough cash to pay for several months of food. However, in other cases, owners open a bank account in the pets’ name(s). According to Ablin as of April of 2002, the U.S. Government is actually paying for a portion of the pet expenses of deployed military, considering companion animals as members of the family, as opposed to mere property.
However, no one offers an allowance for dog training. Terri says, the young Labrador has so much energy that she believes dog training will help. And she’s happy to pay for it out of her pocket.
Terri says she only had a brief phone conversation with the soldier she’s watching the pets for. A friend of his delivered the dogs to her home.
Susan in Colorado has had the luxury of actually meeting the helicopter pilot she’s about to foster two dogs for. “He’s a great guy; he cares so much about his pets.”
Susan, who has two Bichon Frise’s of her own, will soon add two more dogs to her home; another Bichon and an elderly, partially deaf, Miniature Poodle with cataracts. Susan explains that the pilot is divorced, and his ex-wife isn’t able to watch the dogs. However, she will bring his children over to see them. “You know, the exact situation doesn’t really matter to me,” she says. “This man needs someone to watch the dogs. I love dogs, I’m happy to help. I can’t go to the Middle East and fight. But this is something I can do.”
There is no fee to sign up to be a foster parent and no fee for the military members who use the site to find foster homes. The websites are not-for-profit. For more information log on to www.netpets.org, www.felinerescue.net or call Albin, (843) 249-5262.
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