Pandemic pets: WU students take advantage of more time at home to foster animals

| Staff Writer

From the dogs of Instagram to endless funny cat videos, pets keep us going when times are rough. With this past year being noticeably more difficult for many Washington University students, many are turning to fostering animals as a way to temporarily access some furry-friend-serotonin. 

Illustration of students and pets in a Zoom call.

Some students have started fostering pets to help them cope with the added stresses of the pandemic. (Jane Lim/Student Life)

Because of the constant change in schedule and location that is part of a student’s usual yearly cycle, including moving back and forth between St. Louis and home states or from dorms to apartments, several students thought it was best to foster instead of fully commit to an pet. 

Senior Tom Tenhula fostered several kittens and a cat with his roommate over the last year. He didn’t want to devote the time to adopting an animal, but was excited by the idea of taking one on part-time. “Adopting just feels like a really long commitment, you know?” he said. “Especially with cats, because they can live up to 20 years. I feel like fostering is just fun because it’s temporary.”

In Tenhula’s case, his decision to foster was due to the effects of the pandemic on his life. “I feel like it was really hard adjusting to a full year of remote learning, and I remember when we first got the kittens it was so relaxing just hanging out and letting the kittens crawl around us,” he said. “So it definitely gave us something to do, to have something to take care of and take our minds off of everything going on.”

For some students, the decision to foster was more of a spur-of-the-moment choice. Madeline and Shira, two sophomores who fostered a dog and a cat this semester, had been wanting to foster for a while but never followed through. (They asked for their last names to be omitted since their landlord doesn’t allow pets.) One day before classes started back in January, they saw an adorable dog on the foster company’s website and decided the time was right. While the pandemic may not have inspired them to foster, it certainly made things easier. 

“With in-person classes, 100%, we never could have fostered the dog,” Shira said. 

Madeline explained that their particular dog needed a ton of outdoor time, which would have made leaving it at home alone for long stretches difficult. “The dog had to be outside basically 18 hours a day!” she said. “It was ridiculous.” 

Despite the temporary nature of the pet parenthood, these students still formed strong emotional bonds to their foster animals and felt that they improved their lives in many ways. 

Madeline said that fostering significantly improved her mental health. “I loved having a dog,” she said. “It made my mental health so much better. It’s like, you can come home and have something that will unconditionally love you.”

For Tenhula, his time fostering has taught him to love a whole species he never considered before. “My only exposure to cats was my aunt’s cats and one of them was horrible, so that definitely created a bias for me against them,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve had a new love for them this year with this as my first real exposure being close to a cat.” 

However, as adorable as fostering could be, it wasn’t always a walk in the park. According to Shira, the workload was much heavier than she anticipated. “The dog was really quite cute and I loved cuddling it, but it was a lot more work than I was expecting so it was hard for me mentally,” she said. 

For these students, pet parenthood sometimes required a village. Luckily for Shira and Madeline, their friends were on the case. “All of our friends really like that we foster animals because they don’t,” Shira said. “We had a group chat of all of our friends when we had the dog because it had to be taken out pretty much every hour, which is really hard to do when you’re in classes.” 

The group chat, dubbed “Fernie’s Friends,” proved a useful way to make sure that the dog was taken out and walked when the foster owners couldn’t find the time themselves. With a whole group to support him, Fern’s ten-day tenure in Madeline and Shira’s household was filled with new people. “Fern made so many friends,” Shira said. 

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