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Ariana Patrick relaxes with foster dog Metallica. Ariana Patrick relaxes with foster dog Metallica. Photo courtesy Patrick family
2022 Aug

Kids Helping Animals

Learn how local families are helping animals who need fur-ever homes.

A curious cat sits in the window, watching people walk by the storefront in the Ghent area of Norfolk. A paw pats the window, hoping someone will stop and notice its cuteness and maybe come in. The storefront looks much like the other shops along Colley Avenue. This business, however, walks a different path than the restaurants and boutiques that line the sidewalk.

Inside, there’s a different vibe—a uniquely purr-fect feeling. The Catnip Cat Café is 2,000 square feet of space furnished with sofas and chairs, along with cat perches, toys, and beds, where a couple dozen cats freely roam.

Visitors pay a nominal fee to sit, relax, and play with the cats. The café, which serves coffee, hot chocolate, and tea, works with rescue organizations, such as Billy the Kidden Rescue and Feral Affairs Network, to help homeless cats find new humans.

The cat café is one of many ways animal rescue organizations in Hampton Roads are using volunteer opportunities and events to find fur-ever homes for dogs and cats, as well as other small animals like hamsters, guinea pigs, and birds.

These days animal shelters are overflowing with homeless animals, and helping hands and/or foster homes aren’t always easy to find. More of both are desperately needed. Here are a few shining examples of how families are pitching in to make homeless animals’ lives better.

Feral Affairs Network Helps Kittens

Families Learn Life Skills from Fostering
Althea Fletcher and a foster cat
Althea Fletcher, 4, and a foster cat relax together. Photo courtesy Fletcher family

Last year, Tangeree Fletcher and Jorryn, 8, went on a mommy/son date to the Catnip Cat Café during one of its Kitten Paloozas. Needless to say, they were smitten with the kittens and inquired about fostering a few.

“Part of the reason we are fostering was eventually to adopt,” Tangeree said. “We are a homeschooling family, and my kids wanted a ‘class pet.’ We also have an older cat and dog, but the kids wanted an animal they could play more with and take care of.”

So, the kids—Jaatari, 11; Jorryn; and Althea, 4—assumed the duties of feeding, cleaning, and helping with energetic, playful foster kittens from Feral Affairs Network. The nonprofit traps, neuters, and releases feral cats not used to humans, but vaccinates, neuters, and microchips friendly kittens and sends them to foster care and eventually to forever homes.

“Taking care of animals is a lot of fun—and work,” Jaatari said. “You should only get an animal if you are ready to take care of it.”

Yes, they are fun, Althea added, but they “poop a lot.”

“I’ve had animals all my life and had worked with other shelters and rescues,” said Tangeree, who lives in Newport News. “For my kids, I had them watch videos about kittens, and we read many books on how to properly care for small animals. We also watched many kitten videos on YouTube.”

Their “kitten room” is also Tangeree’s office and craft space and is separate from other rooms in the house. Hard plastic mats cover the hardwood floors, and a low table holds a water fountain and dry food feeder. Several litter boxes, along with cat beds, toys, and scratching posts, are kept there, too. Once the kittens are acclimated, they can go out in the main house.

“Fostering cats and kittens is one of the best things we have done as a family,” Tangeree said. “I have watched all three share the fun and love and responsibility of taking care and loving something that needs their help. They are more thoughtful and loving—not just with animals but with people, too.”

Billy the Kidden Rescue Needs Foster Homes

As Well As Trappers, Volunteers, and Supporters
Summer Weiler and foster cat
Summer Weiler, 3, loves to play with foster cats that stay at her home. Photo courtesy Weiler family

A spare bedroom in a quiet part of the Morse house in Virginia Beach is where foster kitties stay until they are old enough to begin socializing with the family cat and other household members.

“Working with animals is such a fulfilling and joyful experience,” said Jen of the dozen kittens they’ve taken in for Billy the Kidden Rescue and the Virginia Beach SPCA. “Their innocence, unconditional love, and trusting nature—a lot like children—offer a refreshing perspective in our busy, everyday lives.”

Jen’s two sons also get to help, not just with cuddles but also with the cats’ daily needs.

“I learned how to give the kittens food and water and how to scoop the poop,” explained Jackson, 8.

“I love taking care of the little kitties,” said Maverick, 4. “They are so cute.”

In Norfolk, pediatric nurse Jen Mann has similar feelings about the value of letting her children—Charlotte, 19; Davis, 17; and Philip 14—help care for foster cats, as well as their own rabbit and springer spaniel and family cat, Lucy.

“Helping my kids learn empathy and compassion is something I value,” said Jen.

Billy the Kidden Rescue operates in all seven cities in Hampton Roads, according to spokeswoman Missy Reo. In addition to the Catnip Cat Café, the rescue showcases available cats at PetSmart in Town Center Virginia Beach. In 2020, the rescue took in 715 cats with 702 adoptions; 1,193 cats with 930 adoptions in 2021; and 582 cats with 431 adoptions in 2022 so far.

“Our needs are for fosters, volunteers, trappers, supporters, as well as people who are crafty and make blankets and others who may want to dedicate an hour or two scooping litter and feeding,” said Missy. “There is a job for everyone.”

“The feral cat population in our communities is huge,” she continued, “and our goal is to stop of the cycle of homeless cats and kittens.”

Puppies and Kittens Available for Adoption

At Va. Beach SPCA and Va. Beach Animal Care & Adoption Center
The Robey Family
Fostering dogs and cats are part of family life for the Robeys, including Alyssa, 15; Lauren, 9; and Drew, 16. Photo courtesy Robey family

The Robeys have fostered more than 125 puppies and kittens during their six years of helping the Virginia Beach SPCA.

“Fostering puppies brings our family closer,” said Joanne Robey, referring to Drew, 16; Alyssa, 15; and Lauren, 9. It’s a common bond we share, and we love hanging out together with our puppies.”

“We get to be a stepping stone for our fosters and show them a little bit of what home life might look like for them when they get to their forever home,” Drew added.

In addition to hours of running with energetic puppies wanting to fetch balls in the yard, fostering has brought personal comfort to the Robey family. When daughter Lauren went through treatment for leukemia for almost three years, the puppies and kittens were a fun distraction and a way to feel better.

“We definitely understand the relationships between animals and people is very healing,” Joanne said.

Typically, the Robeys keep foster animals for a two-week quarantine after their immunizations. Paisley, a puppy born with a leg deformity, stayed six weeks, long enough for the family to develop a real attachment.

“We had a hard time giving her back because of her extended time with us,” Joanne remembered. “It was so rewarding watching her grow and get strong enough to be adopted. We are happy we had a small part in her healing journey.”

The love of a family dog who passed away motivated Ariana Patrick, 15, and her family to foster dogs through the Virginia Beach Animal Care and Adoption Center. Everyone in the family helps out, whether it’s feeding, walking, or picking up poop.

“Typically, our foster dogs sleep with whomever ends up taking them to bed,” said Ariana, who lives in Virginia Beach.

Caring for a foster dog can be emotionally taxing, she admitted, but it’s worth it in the end because you know the animal is being taken care of. “Most of the dogs my family takes home to foster are on the euthanization list, so it’s a really good feeling to know that a dog that may not have had much longer in the shelter now has a home.”

Peninsula Regional Animal Shelter Gives Pets a Second Chance

PETA Also Needs Foster Homes and Volunteers
Gabriel Woodley and foster dog
Gabriel Woodley, 4, and one of his foster dogs enjoy a car ride. Photo courtesy Alicia Moss

Gabriel Woodley, 7, loves animals and gets bored easily. His mom, Alicia Moss, discovered weekend fostering for the Peninsula Regional Animal Shelter fulfills both of those needs. It’s something they can do together, and Gabriel stays happy and busy.

“I love that I can make my own fostering schedule,” said Alicia, who lives in Newport News and works in health care. “I can take a dog out starting at 10 a.m. Saturday and take it back by 4 p.m. The program fits my work schedule, single parenting, and current lifestyle. I love how my son has interacted with the animals, releasing energy and enjoying each other’s company.”

In Suffolk, Carrie Weiler and daughter Summer, 3, have fostered two rabbits, a dog, and a cat for the shelter which serves Newport News, Hampton, York County, and Poquoson.

“The foster coordinator and staff are great at matching us with animals that will work with our household,” Carrie said. “Fostering has helped me become more patient with people and animals,” she continued. “It’s a reminder that everyone/every animal can use a little more love, patience, and second chances.”

PETA has approximately 1,100 volunteers around Hampton Roads, according to spokeswoman Catie Cryar. Some play a foster role like six-year-old West and his mom, Julia Novak, who have taken in rescues on several occasions.

“I encourage families to get involved with animal rescue because it really instills a sense of compassion in children and empowers them to get involved with helping those in need,” said Julia, who lives in Virginia Beach and started volunteering with PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in 2008.

In addition to fostering rescues that had been in horrible living conditions, Julie and West have adopted three dogs and a cat. “I like to help animals because I know their lives are just as important to them as our lives are to us,” said West. “The strong should always protect the weak.”

For more information:

Kathy Van Mullekom

Kathy Van Mullekom is a retired journalist, whose beats included gardening, women’s issues, restaurant trends, and fashion. Formerly a York County resident and master gardener, she now lives in southeastern Virginia Beach, where her leisure hours are spent golfing with husband Ken and exploring parks with her two grandkids, Mattie, 9, and Grady, 7.

Website: https://www.facebook.com/kathyhoganvanmullekom

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