March 12, 2001 -- Florida widow Louella Rohr had managed her
share of problems in life when her mother died in 1990. Although her mother was
very elderly, Rohr, then age 70, sank into a depression after the funeral.
So severe did it become that her physician prescribed
antidepressants. But after a while, Rohr says she felt hooked. So she made a
courageous decision. She signed herself into a 28-day detoxification program at
a nearby hospital. She was looking forward to getting off the drugs but was
anxious about how her constant companion, Zeeba, would fare without her. The
sleek black Doberman meant everything to her. And with no family around, Rohr
didn't know where to turn.
She could deal with constantly forgetting her shopping list, and she'd made
a habit of writing down where she'd parked her car, each and every time. But in
her mid-50s, Janis Mara's memory problems started costing her money. Late fees
began piling up because she forgot to pay her bills.
"Over time, it really intensified," she says. "I wanted to think
I was just getting older, but my fear was that it was Alzheimer's."
After bugging her HMO for an MRI, Mara discovered that her lapses weren't
Then someone told her about a program run by the Humane Society
of Vero Beach. Under the Foster Pet Care Program, pets are temporarily housed
at the Vero Beach shelter or sent to volunteers who take animals into their
homes while owners are hospitalized or relocated after a significant life
event. Zeeba was lucky enough to get in the program. And Rohr still remembers
how happy Zeeba was to see her the day she finished the program and they were
Around the country, several similar programs are in operation,
many of them modeled after the Vero Beach program, believed to be the first
when it opened in 1986. Some foster pet care programs are dedicated to caring
only for pets of owners with AIDS, while others care for pets whose owners are
ill with any condition, or who are escaping domestic violence or natural
disasters and can't immediately take their pets with them.
The arrangements vary, too. Some programs shelter the animals
in a special part of their kennels; others send them to trained volunteers.
Some programs do both. Foster owners are carefully selected and trained, and
often are visited in their homes to assess their capabilities.
Whatever the specifics, the programs have a common denominator:
making pets feel as comfortable as possible. But the benefits of such programs
go far beyond the pets, advocates say. Because a growing body of research
suggests health benefits of the human-animal bond, it makes sense that
disrupting that bond by removing a pet permanently isn't advisable. Foster care
can relieve owners' anxieties and allow them to focus on recovering or
rebuilding their lives. And there's yet another advantage: volunteers who care
for these pets say their sense of well-being increases.
Meeting a need
The Humane Society of Vero Beach program -- which now provides
foster care for 300 animals a year and boasts 40 volunteers -- began when a
humane society volunteer had a stroke and no place to park her pooch. "I
ended up fostering the dog," says Joan Carlson, the society's executive
director. "We took her German Shepherd, Lacey, to the rehabilitation
facility." And just seeing her dog, Carlson says, seemed to speed the