WASHINGTON -- Deploying overseas means leaving friends and loved ones behind. For service members with no one to take care of their beloved dog, cat, bird or other pet, it once meant also having to abandon or turn the pet over to a shelter never to see it again.
The Military Pets Foster Project, a nonprofit group founded by animal lover Steve Albin, has placed about 15,000 pets in foster homes throughout the United States while their owners serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. Operation Noble Foster, which specializes in foster homes for cats, has found temporary homes for about 25 military cats a month since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, according to founder Linda Mercer.
Albin and Mercer said they established their groups shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when they learned that thousands of service members had been forced to give up their pets when they deployed to Operation Desert Storm more than a decade earlier. "What kind of morale builder is that?" Albin said. "Does it mean that to serve, you have to be willing to put your best friend to sleep?"
Since launching the Military Pets Foster Project, Albin estimates that the group has saved as many as 150,000 pets from being abandoned or turned over to shelters, where pets not quickly adopted often are euthanized. Although dogs and cats are the most common pets in need of foster homes, Albin said his group has also placed ferrets, rabbits, horses, lizards, snakes and other "exotics," including a pot-bellied pig.
Albin said he matches pets in need of foster care with appropriate foster homes and requires those involved in the arrangement to sign a foster agreement.
Both Albin and Mercer said they're impressed by the outpouring of support they receive from people willing to provide foster care for pets while service members deploy in support of the war, serve tours where they can't take their pets, or even ship off to basic training.
"People are opening up their hearts and their doors to help the people of the military," said Albin. "It's a patriotic gesture of thanks."
Mark Delman from Parker, Colo., signed up through Operation Noble Foster to provide a foster home for five cats owned by a military family currently stationed in Germany. Delman said he encourages others to open their doors as well.
"These people are keeping us safe and free, and shouldn't have to give up their beloved pets to do so," he said. "Offering a foster home is a way of saying 'thanks.' I tell people not to hesitate to do it."
Albin encourages service members in need of foster care for their pets to give the Military Pets Foster Project as much notice as possible of their upcoming deployment so the group can find a suitable home.