Fostering caretakers: Gretchen Decker, coordinator of the Dog Foster Family Program.Courtesy of ACL

Kathy Capone, 61, makes no bones about being tagged as an Animal Care League (ACL) of Oak Park foster family volunteer year after year.

Since 2005, the retired Chicago public high school teacher has temporarily taken in nearly 300 rescue puppies and dogs that land at the 1013 Garfield Street shelter — from the streets or other overcrowded shelters.

Fostering these dogs in her home became her passion seven years ago when Sugar, and her litter of pups, was being relocated to the friendly confines of Oak Park from a shelter in Peoria.

Capone, who had two dogs, initially said she couldn’t help.

“I got off the phone and thought, boy, a litter of puppies? Oh boy that would be cute,” she recalls.

When she tossed the ball to her husband, it rolled on by.

“He was saying, ‘No, no, are you crazy? No, no, absolutely not,'” the former ACL board member recalled.

“They were here the next day — Sugar and her nine puppies,” she said, laughing.

Seven years later, the ACL Foster Family Program is a thriving “shelter without walls” for hundreds of unwanted, neglected and ill dogs and cats that cycle through on their way to adoption, thanks in part to Capone and about 45 dedicated volunteers who participate, said Tom Van Winkle, ACL’s executive director.

In 2012, to free up space for more homeless pets, Van Winkle and his team hope to grow their volunteer base of foster families by about 30 percent.

Currently on-premise, says Van Winkle, are 33 kennels, one-third of which hold dogs in line for adoption. In addition, about 80 felines reside in the shelter, but that number will proliferate with the onset of “kitten season,” now through November, he said.

“Our objective is to take animals that are currently not adoptable and temporarily put them in foster homes, which then opens up more spaces for other animals that need our help,” he said. “As animals in the shelter get adopted, we pull dogs and cats from the foster homes so those animals can be available for adoption as well.”

Cat people

What they are looking for, Van Winkle said, is more animal people who can give their time and love to help these pets grow up to be great dogs and cats. To that end, ACL provides volunteers with the essentials to foster a pet in their home — food, kitty litter and a box, toys, kennels, plus wrap-around vet care and ongoing staff support.

“We currently have a wonderful group of foster families who take the kittens into their own homes and raise them until they are old enough for adoption, around 10-12 weeks,” said Jill Lebovitz, Feline Foster Family Program coordinator.

Lebovitz pointed out that volunteers in the feline program are responsible for all aspects of care for the kittens, including having a separate room with a door to safely house them, and the ability to bring them back to the shelter every two weeks for vaccines and checkups by their veterinarian.

For newborns, bottle feeding every two hours or so and continuously cleaning up after the kittens are also part of it, as is playing with and socializing the young cats.

Dog lovers

On the canine side, fostering involves taking a needy dog in until the animal has a new forever home. Volunteers are asked to do minor obedience work — sit, stay, come — and in some cases help the dog learn a new name. Sometimes working on crate training and house breaking is required, said Gretchen Decker, coordinator of the Dog Foster Family Program.

“When we have a pregnant mom in our shelter, after the birth, a foster home has taken the mom and her nursing puppies until they are weaned, about 6-8 weeks. Then the puppies are divided into groups of two or three, and another foster family steps in and raises them for generally 2-4 weeks more. After that, they come back here and we put them up for adoption,” Decker said.

Some volunteers may be requested to “re-socialize” a rescue dog, or observe them in a home environment to discern unexpected and “re-trainable” anti-social behaviors. As a break from being kenneled, or as a recuperative measure, some families might provide short-term respite for a dog.

Capone said raising a litter of pups is like life on fast-forward. One day a pup is sitting up for the first time, and then all of them are. A few hours later, the pups are taking their first toddling steps, and then chasing each other around, puppy-style.

While raising Sugar’s crew, Capone said she could take the nine pups into the backyard, call out “‘Puppy meeting!’ and they would all come running to me,” she recalled.

“These puppies were the little things that didn’t have their eyes open three weeks ago, and in a short amount of time, I got to see them grow up and go to a wonderful new home,” she said. “That is when it is all worth it for me. There is an impulse to keep them, but it is an impulse that comes to a natural end because you just can’t keep them all.”

To begin the volunteer process, go to, or call 708-848-8155 for additional information.

The name game

What’s in a pet’s name?

Take Smoochie. That dog’s face is all “smooched up.” Yep, that’s it.

Big, mean-looking Andre … isn’t. He’s a misunderstood, 78-pound or so, rough-looking, yellow-eyed adolescent.

“He is the sweetest dog, so we figured he had to have a fancy name, so he is Andre, to convey that he is not what he looks like because he is one nice, nice guy,” said ACL volunteer, Kathy Capone.

Their naming process, say ACL staffers, is quick, whimsical and purpose-driven.

There’s the infamous doggie outlaw gang, Cassidy, Dillinger, Dalton, and so on; the Shakespeare family headed by Desdemona; and ACL’s Jill Lebovitz has a litter called the Zodiac kittens. You know, Gemini, Aquarius, etc.

“We always have a theme. It’s easier to keep track of them that way,” says Lebovitz.

Yet another local mystery solved.

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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