Making a Difference: How I Started Fostering

I began volunteering for the House Rabbit Society when I lived in Los Angeles. I helped clean litterboxes and cages every weekend at Holly O’Meara’s, the main foster home in the area. Then I offered to foster Luke. He was pretty scared and scruffy when he moved into my kitchen. Seeing him bloom into a beautiful outgoing guy, tugging on my pants legs for treats and attention, was very rewarding. Like many fosterers before me, I was tempted to keep him myself. But this was discouraged among rescuers, because it meant that other rabbits could not be rescued. Holly sent a couple of very nice adopters my way. Their rabbit had recently died and they wanted to meet Luke.

It was love at first sight on their part. It wasn’t long before Luke reciprocated. After Luke came Carmen, then Albert, then Poppy. One rabbit at a time, I was making a difference.

A New Chapter Needed

When my husband and I both finished graduate school at UCLA, we moved to Baltimore. I knew this area did not have an HRS chapter. Volunteering for HRS in Los Angeles, I had learned how to discern good potential adopters, how to introduce rabbits to new friends, how to run a public event, and more. I had also learned how much work, time, money, and commitment it took to run a chapter.

It was not all heroic rescues and happy adoptions. It was phone calls day and night from people who no longer wanted their rabbits. It was the adopted rabbit being returned from what you thought was a really good permanent home. It was coordinating volunteer help that was not always reliable. It was tedious but necessary paperwork to be submitted to the national office. It was emptying your own pockets to pay big veterinarian bills, caring for sick rabbits, and grieving for ones who didn’t survive. It was an enormous responsibility. Was I ready? I wasn’t sure.

Starting Small

We found an apartment in Baltimore with hardwood floors and a liberal pet policy. Although I had already fostered for the LA chapter, I filled out an application to become an official HRS fosterer and chapter-manager trainee for the Baltimore area. I agreed to provide the foster rabbits with veterinarian care and at least 30 hours of exercise time a week. I got myself a second phone line so I could keep my sanity and some privacy. I got a P.O. box so I would not find abandoned rabbits on my doorstep.

An HRS chapter must foster 10 or more rabbits, but not necessarily at the same time. I decided I would start with 3 foster rabbits, since the number of rabbits I housed did not matter as much as how quickly I could find good homes. My first step was to phone local exotic veterinarians and find a good veterinarian for my own 3 rabbits. I also inquired if they would be willing to offer a spay/neuter discount to a rabbit rescue group.

Luck was with me. I found a very experienced vet, and he already provided low cost spay/neuter for the local ferret rescue. The next step was phoning the local shelters to assess the situation. The local SPCA only accepted and adopted out dogs and cats. My call to the Humane Society was much more encouraging. The woman I talked to had encountered HRS at an animal welfare conference in San Diego. She had been very impressed and was eager to work with me.

The Humane Society had 6 rabbits. Choosing was difficult, but I settled on my first 3 rescues: Sylvia, a bold and outgoing 10-lb Chinchilla girl; Jet, a small energetic black dwarf mix boy, and Phoebe, a terrified, overweight black and white spot rabbit. I knew Phoebe was a good omen, since she looks like the rabbit on the HRS clock logo. I had all of them spayed and neutered the same day. Litterbox training took under two weeks.

Up for Adoption

I began to advertise in the Sunday classified. “Bunnies for adoption, litterbox trained, spayed /neutered, indoor homes only.” People called, but most of them were not the kind of people I had in mind. Some thought I could not be serious about the “indoor homes only” part. Some were looking for a “starter pet” for their 7, 8, 9 year old daughter. an animal that wouldn’t require too much time, work, or commitment. However, a few sounded as if they could provide a responsible, caring home for one of my foster rabbits. I tried to give everyone who called a realistic picture of what it was like to live with a rabbit: not only the bunny-proofing and the veterinarian bills, but also the good things, too. I mailed them HRJ articles specific to their situations–bunnies with toddlers, bunnies with dogs. I waited for someone to call back to make an adoption appointment. I waited and waited.

Patience Rewarded

Finally in January, I found a wonderful home for Jet. The family had a 7 year old girl, but the rabbit was to be for everyone. They had read books and researched rabbit care. When I delivered Jet to his new home, they had bought a two-story Rabbitat and every toy I had mentioned. Then Sylvia went, she had a dog to boss around. In the past 10 months, 15 abandoned rabbits have gotten a second chance.

Manipulating Space

My apartment is not large, but I am able to accommodate 4 foster rabbits in addition to my own 3 family-rabbits. My own bunnies have a bedroom to themselves; 3 foster rabbits live in a 3-level Rabbitat cage in the living room; and a 4th rabbit lives in the bedroom. When I bring a rabbit home, she is housed in a separate area in a regular cage with urine guards during quarantine and litterbox training. The wire floor is covered with easily replaceable, chewable cardboard. Two rabbits rotate 12-hour exercise shifts in the dining room, which is equipped with cardboard play boxes and a maize mat. One rabbit exercises in the bathroom hallway; another, in the bedroom. The foster rabbits do not interact with each other because I feel that an introduction is not worth the time and stress, if they will be separated when adopted. My setup has changed a number of times, and I find it works best to be flexible.

Expanding Support

I had a lot of lucky breaks in setting up my foster home. I had the enormous benefit of volunteering with an experienced fosterer before striking out on my own. Early on, I found a good veterinarian and a cooperative local shelter. The national office sent a couple of willing volunteers my way. One, Susan Wong, began working with another area shelter and has set up a second foster home near D.C. She has had great success doing adoption days at a local chain of pet supply stores.

I have learned much from the shared experiences of other HRS fosterers that helped me establish a rescue/adoption program. However, only by actually doing it, have I come to understand that running a foster home is more time, work, and joy then I ever imagined.

Kathleen Wilsbach, PhD

House Rabbit Journal Volume III, Number 6, December 1995