Mewbacca, Havoc, and Tabsy had never seen a 7-year-old boy before. Was he something to play with? Munch on? Hide from? My son Jack sat down in front of their kitten bed, gently picked up Tabsy and tucked him inside his red sweatshirt, whispering, “You’re OK. You’re OK.” Tabsy nuzzled in and started purring at the top of his lungs. Now he knew: A 7-year-old boy was something that gave kittens love.

We are lucky to be a pet fostering family, taking pets into our home that need time away from local shelters to grow, heal, or socialize until they are ready for adoption. Our cat-loving family chose to specialize in kittens between 1 and 2 pounds in weight. We took a training last spring at Springfield’s T.J. O’Connor Animal Adoption Center to learn the ropes with Jessecah Gower, Special Projects and Volunteer Coordinator.

During the training, she looked straight at my kids and announced: “You have a really important job, and you have to promise me you will not forget to do it.” They nodded solemnly. “You have to play with your foster kittens every day.” They jumped up and down in glee. This was a promise they could keep.

Gower explained to us that the more normal family chaos young animals can be safely exposed to, the more adoptable they will be. Fosters should be included in family life as much as possible. If they are used to kids’ running feet and cuddling hands, vaccuums roaring and pianos playing, they will be able to adapt just fine to living in family homes. Cats and dogs who don’t have a chance to socialize early on with people, especially children, can find it harder to fit into an adoptive situation.

“Families who foster help shelters save lives,” Gower asserts. Plus, don’t forget, “They are cute and fun to play with!” Six-year-old Ryan Chung tells me this regarding the newborn kittens in his basement. He and his two younger brothers are part of a pet foster family with the Dakin Humane Society in Springfield. Ryan’s mother, Kate Chung, explains how she got the idea.

“I first thought of fostering a cat as a way to test our son's allergies. We knew he had a severe dog allergy and tested positive for cats, but we weren't sure how severe it was,” she says. “We were lucky enough to start fostering a pregnant cat in May. After three weeks she finally gave birth to six kittens.”

As it turns out, newborn kittens are hypoallergenic and only start producing the skin oils that make many allergic people react at around two months.

“Around seven weeks of age, the kittens really started irritating him. So for us, it seems the only kind of cuddly pet we can have is newborn kittens, which is very special,” she adds.

The benefits of fostering clearly go both ways. Young animals learn to get along with humans and enjoy the setting of a real home rather than a shelter cage, while the young kids get to learn proper handling and the sheer joy of curious, cuddly creatures. Chung says, “Our rambunctious little boys have learned how to cuddle and comfort creatures no bigger than their hand.”

Long-time pet foster parent Tami Hoag also encourages families to give fostering a try to enjoy the  adundant perks.

“Animals are therapeutic,” she points out. “Snuggling with a puppy or seeing a mom dog come out of her shell and enjoy playing chase with a ball can turn your cranky day around.”

Hoag’s family has been fostering animals in Western Mass for the Dakin for more than 12 years.

“Fostering started out partially as a way to provide the kids with having an animal but not committing to owning one while at the same time helping save an animal life,” she explains. “As a single mom with young kids, I was unsure if I wanted to take on the commitment of adding an animal full time to the household.”

Hoag found many educational opportunities through fostering pets. “My girls reinforced math skills with measuring out medications and weighing kittens,” she notes. “In fact, the youngest child was a reluctant reader and she learned by reading out loud to feral kittens. My kids have researched guinea pig diets, learned responsibility — though there may have been a fight or two about whose turn it was to clean the litter box! And patience — it takes time to turn a feral kitten around. They have also become advocates of spay/neuter practices and humane animal treatment.”

Foster parents can choose which kinds of animals they volunteer to help and for how long; Hoag and her children have been there for everything from nine tube-fed newborn puppies to guinea pigs to 2-day-old cats.

“Foster parents are my heros,” says Leslie Harris, Dakin’s executive director. “They save more than 1,000 lives for Dakin each year. Everybody from little kittens to baby hamsters to full-grown elderly dogs. They give of their hearts over and over again.”

We had the opportunity to foster more than 10 kittens in 2014, and friends love coming to our house to meet the new furry bundles. Some have been adopted by neighbors or co-workers, others by strangers within minutes of being brought back to the shelter. My whole family has found the experience tremendously enriching. My daughter Susannah loves helping name each new arrival, like spotted sisters Lindsey Light Ears and Betty Black Ears. My husband sometimes brings the friendliest ones to his work for Kitten Thursday, which lowers stress and increases giggling around the office.

“But how can you give them up?” people frequently ask. “Don’t you just fall in love?”

Susannah answers for all of us: “Of course we do. They need love, that’s why they come to us. After they’ve learned all about kids and love, they are ready to be adopted by anyone.”

Interested in volunteering as a pet foster family? Adoption Centers and shelters all over Western Mass would love to have you. Contact your nearest shelter, or check out:

Springfield Adoption and Education Center

Dakin Humane Society

171 Union Street, Springfield

Leverett Adoption Center

163 Montague Road, Leverett

T.J. O’Connor Animal Adoption Center

67 Cottage Street, Springfield

Email Jessecah Gower

If you’re not ready to foster, you can still help by sponsoring a pet fostering family. While the adoption centers provide all medical care, other supplies are always needed, such as kitten and puppy formula, heating disks, litter, bottles, and food.