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Adoption Innovation: From Surrenders to Fosters

One shelter enlists people seeking to surrender cats to foster them until they’re ready for adoption.

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A mom and kittens fostered through Sun Cities 4 Paws Rescue

It’s a common story: Someone needs to surrender a pet, calls every shelter in the area, and is told they’re all full. Needless to say, the situation doesn’t lend itself to a positive outcome. So Sun Cities 4 Paws Rescue, Inc., a cat-only shelter in Youngtown, Arizona, decided to work with community members seeking to surrender rather than presenting them with yet another dead end.

“We started a Surrender to Foster program in which we ask the person wanting to surrender if they would be willing to ‘foster’ the cat or kittens until we are ready for actual intake. It turns a six-week (or longer) waiting period into a three-week one,” grant writer Angie Grams said in her grant report.

“The person wanting to surrender signs the cat over to us and we do all the needed veterinary care: vaccinations, testing, sterilization, etc., while the cat resides in the home of the person surrendering.

“This is beneficial to both Sun Cities 4 Paws and the surrendering person. We keep much-needed cage space, reduce illness, and reduce the length of stay, since the cat will not actually come into the shelter until they are adoption-ready. And the surrendering person is able to turn the cat over to us much sooner than if they had to wait for available space.”

I spoke with Sun Cities 4 Paws President Ninette Sellar about the program.

When did you start Surrender to Foster?

It’s been going on since the middle of 2022. So almost a year ago. 

How did the idea come about?

We always were looking for innovations. Our board doesn’t have a background in shelter management, so we’re all learning as we go. We had a change in staff leadership, so it was an opportunity for us to try new things. We were looking for ways to reduce our length of stay and involve our community more. And part of the Maddie’s Fund We Foster Challenge was [to find] a way to work with other organizations who are also trying to be innovative. We joined in their group meetings and developed what I think is now a really successful Surrender to Foster program. 

What has the impact been on your organization and your pet population?

Just in the six months in 2022 that we were doing this, we were able to bring on 30 fosters through the program and 120 cats. Initially we thought it was just going to be owner-surrenders, but there’s no reason not to offer it to people who have found cats, or who are taking care of their neighbor’s abandoned cat. We found that, when people understand that there’s not an open place, and they’ve called two or three other shelters and they’re all full, it becomes, “Okay, well at least we know it’s [only] a three-week commitment.” You know, they want to help the cat. And when they learn what the challenges are to the shelters, they become part of the solution.

What’s been really great too is that some of the fosters that we’ve recruited through the Surrender to Foster program have continued to be fosters for us.

What are some of the issues people bring up when they’re resistant to the idea of fostering? Allergies, other pets in the home, not enough space?

Certainly all of those. I think that the biggest resistance is, “I need this cat out now; I’m moving tomorrow,” or “My mom passed away and we’re only here for a little while cleaning the house.” And for those kinds of things, we figure it out. But for those that have the opportunity, we talk to ‘em.

But I think the biggest challenge is, we have a veterinarian who comes in once a week, so there’s a really specific day and time that we need the cats back in the shelter for vaccinations, exams, and all of that. That’s really the biggest challenge: You’re going to have to take a weekday morning, three times during the cat’s stay, to bring the cat in.

Are you an all-volunteer organization? 

No, we have 10 paid staff and the rest are volunteers. We do not have a vet on staff.

You know, they want to help the cat. And when they learn what the challenges are to the shelters, they become part of the solution.”

Have you had to enlist staff or volunteers to go out to people’s homes, whether to pick up a cat and bring it to the vet or to deliver supplies? 

No. We haven’t offered that. Not any more than we usually do, and we don’t do it very often. Usually that’s reserved for our legacy cats, cats that have been registered with us for us to be able to go in and take care of them when the owner no longer can.

If I call you and I say, “I have this cat. My family member passed away, I can’t keep her, can you take her?” How would the conversation go?

Well if we have space, then we would absolutely take them. If we have space but, you know, sometimes it sounds like they don’t really want to part with them, but they know the cat’s just not going to fit in their life, we do offer — we offer it to everybody: “If you are available to keep the cat for three weeks and let them stay in a home, that will keep them out of a cage and they’ll go straight to our adoption center.” And for somebody who’s grieving, that sounds really good, that they can keep their mom’s cat out of a stressful situation. 

Because if a cat is not vaccinated or altered, it will be in the shelter but not available for adoption for, is it three weeks, generally? 

Yeah. About three weeks.

What if I’m saying, “Listen, the cat is scratching up my furniture. I’m just over it.” How would that conversation go?

If we have space and we can accommodate, we will. If we don’t have space, we’ll say, “We can help you with your cat, but the only way we can do that is if you basically foster the cat for us for three weeks.” And I think that people who are trying to rehome their cats appreciate that, after they call the other shelters and find out how nobody else is going to take ‘em. What we forget is that, while I’m in this world every day, the callers that we get are not. When they finally make the decision to rehome their cat, this is all very new to them. So they think, “I can just call and take the cat to a shelter.”

So there’s some education, and I think that it’s important to always keep the frame of mind that you’re a nonprofit and you’re working with your community. You really have to involve the community in what your mission is. We can’t do it by ourselves, so we’re always looking for ways to engage our community, through donations, through volunteers, and through helping them take care of their cats.

Haillie, a former Sun Cities 4 Paws foster kitten. Read her story here.

Do people have an easier time wrapping their heads around three weeks because it’s a clear-cut, finite time frame?

Absolutely. Even if we find that the cat is going to take longer than three weeks [to become adoptable], like if they have a really bad mouth and need a dental, we can say, it’s going to take a little longer, but the intake is going to be this time. So if you want to keep the cat a little longer, great. If not, we’ve made the commitment that it’s going to be three weeks and we’ll take the cat. And sometimes then we find another foster who’s willing to take on an adult cat who needs a dental. I don’t think we’ve had many say, “Okay, I’ll keep him for three more months because that’s how long the wait is for a dental.” 

Have you ever not had the space at the end of the three weeks?

No. We figure it out. We kind of know what’s coming in. And we do keep a couple of empty banks in case there’s a dump or whatever. There was one week where we had to do some pop-ups, but that was the week before a spay/neuter, so we had so many [cats in the shelter] anyway.

So you have some flexibility.


Have you found that this program has changed your organization’s relationship with your community?

The best and biggest change is that, for our staff and volunteers who are answering phones, it’s not a bunch of, “No, we don’t have space, call the other shelters,” when we know they don’t have space. It’s been great to be able to say, “We have another option. We don’t have space, but we have another option, so let’s work together on this.” 

And then kind of like, tightening up our description of the program. That took a minute to wrap our brains around, so that our staff and volunteers who answer the phones really understand what it is well enough to be able to explain it. That took a minute to work out, but now we have a script.    

There was a lot of nervousness that people were not going like it, and be put out that we were asking for help. But we’ve really found the opposite: that it’s been great to have one more way to offer to help. 

Has it changed your staff’s and volunteers’ perspectives on the people who are surrendering?

That’s a tough one. We’re still working on that. But as we have conversations with people, [we’ve learned that] very few of our Surrender to Fosters have been owner-surrenders. It’s not usually their longtime pet cat that they’re trying to bring in. It’s somebody else’s cat, or a cat they found in the community, or the litter of a pregnant mom who showed up at their workplace. 

We didn’t expect to find that. But I think by having the conversations with them, we get to learn more, [and understand that] it’s not just somebody trying to get rid of their cat. It’s somebody who’s really working to help a cat that they didn’t expect to encounter.

We’re always looking for ways to engage our community, through donations, through volunteers, and through helping them take care of their cats.”

Have you found that having the foster period cuts down on stress for the cats and makes them more adoptable once they come in?

Yeah. I think so. We’ve got fewer cats getting sick because they’re not getting exposed to [contagions] in the shelter, so we get healthier cats that go straight to the adoption centers. I think some of the staff wish they had more time with the cats so they could get to know them and describe their traits, but there’s plenty of other cats. We’ve got about 120 cats at our shelter at any given time, so there are other cats they can get to know [laughs].

Does the foster provide a description of the cat’s personality once they bring it in? 

Yeah, that’s part of the paperwork at the time of surrender, so that we get some description. Some of the fosters, although not always, are like, “Here’s the cat. I did my part, bye.” And then of course when the cats are in the adoption centers, the adoption staff get to hang out with them and can update adopters on what the cat’s behavior is.

How does it work financially? 

We do let them know what our surrender fee is. We have gotten some eyerolls, like, “Wait, so you want me to give you money and then I take care of this cat?” We have been flexible if we know that there’s a need. We also provide food, supplies, and litter when they ask for it, so we let them know that we can offer that. But we are a nonprofit [laughs].

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned through the course of this program?

We didn’t start out collecting or tracking these cats separately in our shelter-management system. So we were like, “Wait, what are our numbers? Well I don’t know, who’s been tracking it?” We had to manually go back. We’re still trying to figure out how to work with our shelter data system to separate this data, because we think it’s important to track it. We’re still hand-counting it.

Over the last year, or couple of years, we’ve been trying new things. We’ve been developing a culture where it’s okay to try and fail, and learn from it, and some of it works and some of it doesn’t. Surrender to Foster has been fun because it’s almost universally successful.

Do you have a sense of how much Surrender to Foster has increased your intake?

Last year it was 120 cats that we would have had to delay intake on. Last year we adopted out 750 cats.

It’s been great to be able to say, ‘We have another option. We don’t have space, but we have another option, so let’s work together on this.’ “

What advice would you offer an organization thinking of trying something like this?

There really isn’t a downside. We have volunteer foster coordinators, and it hasn’t significantly increased the amount of work that they have to do. It’s the same as with a brand new foster volunteer: We have the same training and on-boarding.

People doing Surrender to Foster go through your standard foster training?

Yes. At the time of intake, we go over with them what it looks like, what dates we’re expecting them to bring the cat in for vaccinations and exams. And we give them a foster handbook that includes an emergency phone number. We make some assumptions that this is not the first time that they’ve had contact with a cat.

Do they often need basic supplies?

No. For the ones who have found a pregnant mom or little kittens, we have this really cute bag that has toys and all the other supplies a kitten foster might need. For bottle babies, it’s got bottles and formula.

We keep the foster [supply] closet replenished. “Do you have toys? What do you need? Let’s make sure you get it.”

Has someone ever gone through the program and decided to keep the cat?

Yes, actually! It was litter of three kittens they’d found. The family got covid during the time, so when they finally were able to start coming back, they were pretty attached. Two of the kittens they found homes for, and they kept one. So those cats had zero shelter time [laughs].

How many new foster homes have you added through this program?

We had 30 [Surrender to Fosters] and I would say probably 10 of them have continued or offered to stay on as fosters, which is amazing. And two of those live in communities where there are a lot of friendly community cats because people have been dropping off cats, or when they move, they leave them. [The Surrender to Foster volunteer realizes that,] “If I foster these cats in groups, I can clean up my community, I can get these friendly cats away from being coyote food.” That has been an unexpected benefit. 

One community had probably 15 orange cats, all related. [The volunteer] has been really grateful, because she’d been feeding them. She started taking in the quantity that she could house in her home, and I think we’re down to the last three. That’s been a fun part of this experiment. 

–Emily Fromm, Chief Development Officer

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