A pit bull and husky dog sit happily on a table in front of a young woman.
Sarah Tyler visits Oakland Animal Services' shelter to play with dogs she recently fostered. Credit: Amir Aziz

Last summer, a senior pit bull with big lumps on his body and a gunky eye was found tied to a pole in Oakland. No owner could be found, so Oakland Animal Services took him in. San Francisco resident Linda Kilmartin fostered him as he went through medical procedures, and the shelter sought someone to adopt him.

The staff at Oakland Animal Services, which is commonly referred to as OAS, named him Hefner.

“It was a funny name, a play on Hugh Hefner,” Kilmartin told The Oaklandside. “You can kind of guess the reason for that.”

Over the last three years, Kilmartin has fostered about 20 dogs, but the affectionate Hefner was her favorite.

“He was caring, loving, personable, and easygoing,” she said. “He would just want to hang out with me. And he’d always watch to make sure I was close by.”

Hefner stayed with Kilmartin for just under three months. During that time, his lumps and infected eye were removed, and he got neutered. A couple adopted him shortly after meeting him and Kilmartin at a dog adoption event. They renamed him King.

Kilmartin has kept in touch with the couple, and sometimes she still sees King at OAS events. She hears King is thriving in his new home. He’s begun training as an emotional support dog and regularly visits senior homes.

King’s story is far from uncommon, and OAS has been facing an increasing need for fosterers like Kilmartin as their dog intake has risen. In 2020, the shelter took in a little over 1,800 dogs. That number has steadily increased, and this year the shelter is on pace to take in over 3,200. According to OAS Director Ann Dunn, about 40% of the dogs OAS intakes come from pet owners who surrender their dogs and tell the shelter they can no longer afford them, often because they are losing their housing.

“Intake is ticking up and up,” said Dunn. “We’re really starting to see the impact of the housing crisis.”

Fosterers provide dogs with a temporary home as they wait to find a permanent one. They free up much-needed space in the shelter and remove dogs from its stressful, crowded environment. According to Dunn, when a person fosters a dog, “in most cases, you’re saving their life.” The shelter would haveto euthanize dogs if they don’t have space for them.

Despite the intake rate rising, though, euthanasia rates have been decreasing since 2019 and are currently at an all-time low. Throughout last year and the first half of this year, OAS has had to euthanize just under 6% of its dogs. In both 2020 and 2019, its dog euthanasia rate was much higher, over 15%.

Linda Kilmartin’s dog Grace snuggling with a litter of kittens she’s fostering for OAS. Credit: Courtesy of Linda Kilmartin

In June 2020, OAS started a big dog foster program for dogs over 25 pounds who take up the most space in the shelter. These dogs also often face difficulties getting adopted due to rules that some, but not all, Oakland landlords enforce that limit the size dog their tenants can have. The program also includes puppies who find the shelter environment particularly difficult to handle, but does not include most dogs under 25 pounds. Smaller dogs generally get adopted quickly.

The program has helped the shelter avoid euthanizing dogs due to lack of space. Since June 2020, OAS has euthanized dogs only due to medical issues, or when OAS has determined a dog is dangerous due to behavioral issues.

“Without the foster program,” Dunn said, “there’s no way we’d be able to help as many dogs as we do today.”

But as more and more dogs come into OAS, the threat of euthanasia continues to loom. Recently Dunn released a statement on OAS’s website that said, “It is getting harder and harder to move dogs through the shelter quickly enough to avoid euthanizing for space.” She is worried about having to increase euthanasia due to COVID-19-related tenant protections ending.

“With the eviction moratorium on rental housing in Oakland ending on July 15,” Dunn’s statement reads, “I anticipate this will be an ongoing challenge and that we will continue to need more help to prevent euthanasia of adoptable dogs.”

Fostering a dog is free, non-binding, and comes with a lot of support

OAS tries to make the fostering process as easy and enjoyable as possible by offering fosterers what they need for a dog and guiding and supporting them.

“Fostering is free,” OAS Foster Coordinator Kay Martin told The Oaklandside. “We provide all food, supplies, vet care, and training assistance if that’s necessary.”

Martin and two other OAS Foster Coordinators, Dalton Reforsado and Mars Yin Lam, maintain a support line where one of them can be contacted 24/7 if a fosterer has a question or concern. Fosterers have found the support helpful, especially if they are new to the process.

“Oh my goodness, they are great,” said Sarah Tyler, an Oakland resident who has fostered over 25 dogs through OAS. “When I first started fostering, I would always have questions that I wasn’t sure about, and they always helped. They are good humans, and I’ve genuinely enjoyed chatting with them.”

OAS Dog Adopter
Three dogs watch the world beyond their pen, waiting for a human to adopt them and give them a forever home. Credit: Amir Aziz

Fosterers also turn to the broader OAS foster community for support. They have a private Facebook group where they not only answer questions but also post fun photos and stories and help each other find potential adopters. OAS introduces fosterers to the group after they take in their first dog. Recently, the group has started meeting up offline for happy hours.

“The foster network is one of the reasons I keep fostering,” said Tyler.

To encourage a good relationship and avoid conflict, OAS workers are intentional about which dogs they give to which fosterers, and they share as much information as they can about the dogs.

“We focus on matchmaking because we want fostering to be a good experience,” said Dunn.

“We’re really careful about not putting a dog in a home they don’t have skills for, and we’re also transparent. We tell people if we think a dog is really jumpy or not good with other dogs.”

The shelter tries its best to accommodate fosterers with the types of dogs they want. Kilmartin loves pit bulls, so has fostered many of them, while Tyler enjoys taking dogs that have a reputation for being hard to take care of.

Despite everyone’s best efforts, fosterers and dogs aren’t always a good match, and sometimes dogs behave in ways that OAS didn’t predict. Fosterers can always bring the dog back if it’s not going well.

“Fosterers should go into it knowing there’s a possibility it isn’t going to work,” said Dunn. “Sometimes people feel guilty if they bring a dog back, but we just end up learning more about you and the dog.”

It can be hard to learn about a dog in a shelter setting. Information shared by fosterers helps explain why fostered dogs end up getting adopted more often and quicker than dogs who stay in the shelter. Fostered dogs can also benefit from being out in the Oakland community and having a fosterer advocate for their adoption.

On average, it takes OAS foster dogs about 75 days to find a home, but it can be unpredictable. Adoption can happen much sooner or take much more time. Regardless of how long it takes, fosterers are never under any obligation to keep fostering.

Tyler has an Instagram account that she uses to spread the word about her fosters. Recently, a couple fell in love with one of Tyler’s fosters through the account and ended up adopting him and naming him Turnip—a play on the phrase turnt-up, as Turnip is a very jumpy dog.

“Being around them is good for your mental health”

OAS Dog Adopter
Sarah Tyler watches several dogs play and roam the yard at Oakland Animal Services. Credit: Amir Aziz

Tyler says that, as an extravert, she found sheltering-in-place due to the COVID-19 pandemic especially difficult, but the foster dogs helped keep her company. These days, Tyler’s foster dogs give her a routine that helps prevent her from “falling into funks.”

“Being around them is good for your mental health,” Tyler said. “You have to live your life because you have these little things that depend on you.”

Kilmartin found that having foster dogs in the house has provided good companionship for her own dog, who she adopted from OAS. While OAS currently needs the most fosterers for dogs, particularly big dogs, the shelter also fosters out cats, kittens, and rabbits. Occasionally, Kilmartin has fostered cats and kittens, and that’s worked out well for her and her dog as well.

“I’ve learned that my dog loves kittens,” Kilmartin said. “I have these adorable pictures of them climbing all over her and nuzzling up to her.”

Currently, both Tyler and Kilmartin are fostering dogs that they hope will find adopters soon. Tyler is fostering Juno, a husky who was emaciated and a “terrified bundle of fluff” when she first met her but who has, within two months, become a lot more physically and mentally healthy. She’s full of energy, and Tyler thinks she’d be a great fit for “the type of person that likes to go on a lot of hikes and has some patience.”

Kilmartin is fostering Kom, a calm, five to seven-year-old 90-pound mixed-breed dog who is completely blind.

“He’s relaxed and good in the house,” said Kilmartin. “He’s an easy walk and doesn’t pull on the leash.”

Both Kilmartin and Tyler say that when their fosters get adopted, saying goodbye can be difficult, but they find the experience meaningful.

“You’re always happy and sad at the same time,” said Kilmartin. “There’s a place for both emotions. If you really love the dog, you’re happy for them. I always keep the big picture.”

“The first few times were hard, and I cried,” said Tyler, “But I’ve gotten better at letting them get adopted and looking at it differently. I try to just see it as babysitting for someone I don’t know yet.”

Goodbye isn’t always necessary. Dunn says about 25% of the time, a dog ends up getting adopted by its fosterer or with someone the fosterer knows. Fostering can be a good way of seeing if you want to have a dog long-term or decide whether a particular dog is a good match for you.

“Fostering can be like interviewing for your forever friend,” said Tyler.

In 2020, Tyler fostered a dog she named Ellie, after The Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby.” Ellie was pregnant, but health issues resulted in all her puppies being stillborn. After the stillbirths, Tyler got a lot of small toys for her that she would gather and cuddle.

Tyler ended up falling in love with the 82 pound pit bull mix and adopting her. She’s noticed that Ellie “has always loved baby everything.” Recently, Tyler enjoyed watching ten children pet and hug her outside a sandwich shop.

“She just had the biggest smile on her face,” said Tyler. “She was in doggy heaven. And I thought, ‘You’ve come so far from being so sad and needing to collect your babies to turning into this perfect little momma.’”

Journalist and poet writing about homelessness, housing, and activism in Oakland and the East Bay.