Congratulations to Ronda L., the February 2021 Volunteer of the Month. As a foster volunteer since 1998, Ronda has saved countless kittens and cats over the years.
Rescuing Pets as a Child
From a young age, Ronda and her family would help all the animals they could. “Animals have been a part of my life for as far back as we can go. We had horses, hamsters, parakeets, and anything else I could get my hands on,” Ronda says. “My dad would bring home critters all the time, everything from domestic animals like dogs and kittens, to injured wildlife like raccoons, and even skunks! My parents ran a commercial refrigeration company, which put my dad on rooftops, in alleyways, in crawl spaces- all the places where he would inevitably find animals that needed help. My parents would do everything they could to nurse animals back to health, then mom would go to the store, and then my brother and I would stand in front of the Piggly Wiggly to see if we could find them homes.
For Ronda, it’s interesting to think about her family’s efforts to help animals through a modern lens, with the knowledge that she has now. “None of our family pets were spayed or neutered, it just wasn’t commonplace in the 70s, and we were always having litters of kittens and puppies. A lot of the time, Dad probably just found a huddle of kittens while their mother was away, and needlessly separated them,” Ronda says. “Then thinking about rehoming pets in front of the grocery store as kids- it’s definitely not the best way to go about it.” However, she knows that they were doing the best they could with the information and resources they had at the time- not unlike the changing zeitgeist of animal welfare agencies over the years.
“Even looking back at things I was doing as a foster volunteer five years ago, I’ve learned a lot and things have changed,” Ronda says. “Now, we’re using force-free medication administration, which means no more scruffing kittens. There’s a process to obtain consent and a level of comfort from kittens before giving them care. Our methods of socializing feral kittens have changed. It’s a learning process. When you make those changes to your methods, or learn new skills, you have to give yourself some compassion and some grace for what you didn’t know before, and acknowledge that everything was coming from a place of good intentions. No matter how long you’ve been fostering, you learn something new with every single kitten you get. Each experience teaches you something.”
Early in life, Ronda was interested in going to vet school. She started fostering kittens for MCAS in 1998 as a way to gain experience in animal welfare. “I remember working with the one vet tech at MCAS. Back then there wasn’t a designated foster program. If there were any kittens under two pounds, too young to vaccinate, I would take them home and keep them until they gained weight and could be vaccinated then adopted out.”
While Ronda’s intention was to go to vet school, she changed course to study human medicine, and stopped fostering around the year 2000 to pursue her education and career.
“For me, things changed again in 2006 when I adopted a new dog after my old Beagle passed away. From my earlier volunteer work at MCAS, I had really fallen in love with pitbulls as a breed. They were always visibly overjoyed to have their walks and initial exams. So I was looking for a smaller pitbull mix to adopt. I also had two resident cats, so I needed a dog that would get along with them.
“I found my dog on Petfinder, as a long-term resident of Humane Society of Cowlitz County. Her name was Mandy, and they had put a Burger King cardboard crown on her head and called her the queen for the day. The photo was out of focus, she looked kind of uneasy, and she had some eye boogers visible, but it was cute and pathetic, and I fell in love with her. Turns out that Mandy had been there for about six months, and just weaned a litter of puppies. Adoption Counselors said she loved all people and animals, was great in a car, and was housebroken. Well, it turns out she was mostly frozen and scared- and yes- she was well-behaved but also glued to my side. It took me an hour to get her in the car, then she sat on the floorboards the whole ride home. She didn’t know how to go up stairs. She didn’t really know what a couch was or how to behave around it.
“I renamed Mandy to Zuca, and I let her meet my cats about two days after I brought her home.
Zuca had zero prey-drive. She wagged her tail a little bit in excitement, then my cat, Stout, licked Zuca’s face and rubbed against her. The two were inseparable friends for seven years until Stout passed away. Zuca would sleep on Stout’s blanket, and was really depressed. I thought about adopting another dog to be a companion for Zuca, and I felt like volunteering at the shelter again would present opportunities to meet a new match.
“After my six year volunteer sabbatical, I went to a volunteer orientation at MCAS. I thought I would volunteer for potty walks, check out the dogs, and adopt when I eventually found the right match. Then the Foster Coordinator reached out to the volunteers, saying the shelter was overrun with kittens, and asking if anyone could take a litter that night. I left that night with three kittens, and forgot all about getting another dog.
“Zuca was immediately interested and involved with the kittens. At first, the way she thought she would help was to put her face near their face and lick them. At first, she was pushy. Over time, she learned the best thing to do was to sit back and let the kittens come to her when they were ready. Some of them appreciated it more than others. Luckily, the first kittens I fostered weren’t small, they were about 8 weeks old, and were able to tell Zuca no if they wanted space.
Zuca was a huge part of raising Ronda’s foster kittens for many years. Ronda’s social media properties were named ZucasKittens in her honor, bringing the world into the process of raising foster kittens, with Zuca as the star. Zuca passed away at the end of November 2020, after fourteen years of faithful companionship for Ronda and her foster kittens.
Fostering Was Like Coming Home
“For me, fostering again was like coming home. I forgot how much I enjoyed it. The first group of kittens I got after years and years were a little hard to start out with, but they turned out fine. After them, I fostered another great single, social kitten.”
“I don’t keep count of how many kittens I’ve fostered. For me, it’s all about keeping cats out of cages and saving lives. If you foster one animal a year, you’re a hero. If you foster hundreds each year, you’re a hero. Just make sure to keep it realistic and do what you can do- know your capacity and limits.
“One thing I really love about Multnomah County is that we’re never guilted into saying yes when we can’t take a case or need a break. Especially when the neonates (neonatal kittens) come in, then you get the e-mail request for fosters, and in your head you do the doomsday thinking of ‘what if no one answers the e-mail, what’s going to happen?’ But you have to gauge your capacity. If you have a full house of animals, or other distracting and important responsibilities, you may not be able to take good care of those kittens, and it could be catastrophic. You can’t think that way. You have to do what you can do. I know I can’t function with too much, and it’s not healthy for me or the animals I am supposed to be taking care of if I try.”
Fostering During COVID-19
“During the pandemic, I have been fostering adult cats with the increased demand for foster homes. I have fostered pretty much every single day since the pandemic started.
“One of my fosters, Clover, was found in a backpack, and just scared to death. I learned that adult cats don’t always eat when they come into foster care, and need extra support. I worked with Clover for six weeks, and watched her blossom. That was really a pretty amazing transition.
“Another foster was found in a house with her deceased owner, and she was pretty tough to socialize, but it’s important work.
Advice for Fosters
“My main piece of advice for those who are interested in fostering is to find a more experienced foster to help you through your experience. Or find several. Even if they have only been doing it a month more than you, they can help teach and mentor you. Make friends with them and ask questions. Even if you’re just social media friends, or e-mail friends, it will help.
“Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. The only stupid questions are the ones that don’t get asked to the people who know what it’s like and can help you.
“If you need a break from fostering, ask for a break. Even if you need a weekend off from fostering- talk with the foster coordinator and the other fosters. It’s ok to take a break.
“Don’t be afraid to advocate for your fosters with the vet staff. You’re with them all the time, and nobody knows your fosters like you do. If you think they need support or medical attention, talk with the vet staff and ask to be seen. In my shoes, I feel totally supported by the veterinary team. I never feel like I am on my own medically, and that's a huge deal. I have a lot of friends across the country with different organizations, and I feel really fortunate to have the medical support that we do at MCAS.
“For those who think they can’t foster because they would keep all the animals- just do it anyway, and know that no matter how much you love that foster kitten, you’re going to love the next one even more, and the next one even more than that. We’re so lucky that we get to free up cage space and save lives, we get to love these kittens or cats so much, and we get to do it over and over again. If I kept a foster, then that would prevent me from maybe fostering in the future, because that would take up space in my house. I haven’t had a foster failure in the last six years. That being said, I am getting pretty attached to one of my current fosters, and would consider it for a really special animal.”
Thank you, Ronda, for your support of the pets and people of Multnomah County as a foster volunteer.