In recent years, well-known animal-welfare organizations such as the Winnipeg Humane Society and the city’s Animal Services Agency have been joined by a growing number of small, independent rescues that share their commitment to caring for the city’s most vulnerable furry residents.
They share another thing, too: they rely on the dedication of foster families.
Volunteering behind the scenes, foster families take in animals for a few weeks to several months, helping them with medical issues and socialization, and providing them with a home environment — and plenty of TLC — until they’re adopted into permanent homes.
"We have about 15 foster families and we could always use more," says Leland Gordon, chief operating officer of the city’s Animal Services Agency, which operates Winnipeg’s dog pound on Logan Avenue in the North End.
"It’s commendable, the work that they do," he continues.
"Foster families usually don’t take home the most adoptable animals. They’re going to take home the three or four-year old Shepherd mix that maybe isn’t the cutest dog, nobody’s looking at it, and they make these dogs shine."
Animal Services’ local facility can house up to 69 dogs (cats are sent to the Humane Society) and staff do everything they can to prevent having to euthanizing the animals they receive. In addition to fostering out adoptable dogs out to make room for others, they also relinquish dogs to various shelters or rescues which, in turn, have their own network of foster families — which is how Bonzai, a nine-month-old Great Dane cross, came to be living with Amanda San Filippo.
The 28-year-old Fort Garry resident is the co-founder of Jenn’s Furry Friends Rescue. Launched this past June, the fledgling organization has a roster of about a dozen foster families (San Filippo included) and has adopted out about 25 dogs so far.
Living in his foster home has given Bonzai the chance to frolic in a yard and socialize with San Filippo’s other dog, a year-old Shepherd cross named Billiam who was her first "foster failure" — a term used to describe dogs that end up getting adopted by their foster families.
Foster failures are common, San Filippo says, because giving dogs up after you’ve bonded with them is difficult.
"It’s like being in a relationship and having to break up," she says. "I cry every time one of my fosters goes. You’re always going to have that feeling: are they going to love this animal as much as I know I could?"
Michele and Jeff MacKinnon can relate. The Charleswood couple has been fostering dogs for the Winnipeg Humane Society since 1998. The WHS has about 150 foster families in its network, although only about 20 work all year around; the rest help out only when needed.
Over the years, the MacKinnons have opened up their home to some 50 foster dogs — including three they eventually adopted.
Saying goodbye is never easy. "We try to think of them as graduating from college," says Michele, 49, of the dogs they’ve relinquished. "I mean, Jeff gets teary-eyed every time."
"Every time," agrees Jeff, 52, while stroking the head of their latest foster, an adorable six-week-old Lab cross puppy named Luna.
Still, despite the inevitable tears, the MacKinnons have nothing but good things to say about fostering.
"Socializing is important, so (fostered dogs) are better adjusted when they’re going to be adopted," Jeff says. "You’re definitely doing your small little part to make things a little better."
It’s not only animals who benefit from the foster experience.
"It’s taught me a lot about patience and discipline," Michele says. "Your house doesn’t always have to be perfectly clean — you realize that it can’t be when you have all these dogs.
"I’m taking care of these beings that are important — just as important as any other creature," she adds.
"So what if they mess up my floor and I have no carpets left? It makes you a little bit more focused on what’s important, I think, and it betters you as a human."