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A COMMUNITY OF FURRY LOVE by Adrianna Donat

Rescuing pets in SOMA

Karen Donovan fostered Monty and his siblings for Purrfect Pals, Inc. He has since been adopted.

Christel Hyden knows fostering pets makes a difference. One of her success stories is about a group of adorable husky puppies rescued from a hoarding situation in a southern state. “They were afraid to come out of their crate. At first, we couldn’t even tell how many puppies there were. They stayed with their noses in a corner in a clump.” But little by little, her son was able to coax them out and make progress with them. “It took a long time as small steps were made,” she says. Eventually, they became happy, playful, and adoptable. “We saw what a dramatic difference fostering can make,” says Hyden.


Hyden is part of a dedicated and connected group of volunteers in Maplewood and South Orange that is making a big difference here and up and down the east coast by reducing the number of pets that are euthanized.

Hyden's son with both their own dogs and some foster dogs.

These unfortunate deaths stem from a lack of space in shelters. In 2020 alone, more than 5,000 pets in New Jersey were euthanized in shelters. This is very sad, but the number gets a little lower each year as the state creeps toward its goal of having only no-kill shelters.


Last year, almost 54 percent of New Jersey animal shelters were no-kill, and in order to adopt from any shelter in New Jersey, a pet must be spayed or neutered, which helps with overpopulation. Still, thousands of dogs, cats, puppies and kittens are in need of loving homes. Many of our neighbors are stepping up to help by providing space for them until they can find homes.


Lauri Rothstein is the Secretary of the East Orange Animal Alliance, a nonprofit that she cofounded. Along with several other SOMA residents, she works to raise money to enable the City of East Orange to care effectively for its at-risk animals, increase exposure to its shelter’s adoptable animals, and more.

Liz McCraw has three rescue dogs. Instead of fostering, she transports pets in need.

Says Rothstein, “Since the pandemic hit, our work has shifted in large part to community support – supplying a weekly pet food bank, providing much-needed veterinary and behavior support to pet owners, and helping to feed the city’s community cat population – in addition to the shelter networking work that we’ve always done.”


When Hyden first considered fostering pets, she was concerned her family did not have enough time to take care of foster dogs and cats. She also worried her kids might see injured animals in pain or dying. So she started with snakes and rabbits.


But when Hyden saw a friend post about an overweight epileptic dog urgently in need of a foster, she thought, “We can do this.” That set the stage for her getting involved with a rescue group out of Queens called Heavenly Angels. In the two and a half years since then, Hyden and her two kids have fostered over 50 dogs.


“Many of them were litters of puppies,” explains Hyden. She says puppies can be less work because they are more contained and don’t require walking. And they are usually fairly easy to find homes for.

Blue the beagle mix was found in a ditch in West Virginia covered in maggots. He was saved by ARTBAR (a grassroots rescue in WV) and transported to a rescue up north to find his forever family.

Finding homes for pets can sometimes be challenging, but the people of SOMA make things easier. “This is a very rescue-oriented community,” says Hyden.


“SOMA is so supportive that I often don’t need to buy supplies. Several kids in our neighborhood have had Rescue Pet Birthday Parties, where the kids bring treats and toys to donate and they socialize the puppies during the party as I talk to them about pet care. The kids have fun and it’s good for the puppies too,” says Hyden.


Hyden has two “foster fails,” or dogs she fostered and decided to make a permanent part of the family. “Our dogs are gentle with puppies and are good at teaching them ‘how to dog,’” says Hyden.

And how do her kids deal with pets leaving? Says Hyden, “It’s a lot to understand. But they learn great lessons, like how to care for and socialize with pets, and how to engage with humans on a topic they feel passionate about.”


Limor Levy lives in Maplewood and has been fostering pets since 2008. She started by walking dogs for Heavenly Angels in Queens when she lived there, but after she moved to SOMA, she started fostering. She also fosters cats and frequently works with Miss Pat’s Cats out of East Orange (find her on Facebook). Levy has a large following on the Facebook group Dogs of Soma as she has chronicled the illness and subsequent passing of her beloved dog Marley. Marley’s story was so well told that many followers who never met her mourned the death of Levy’s dog.

Another dog Levy made famous is Mila. “Mila was one of my first foster dogs. She came up from a high-kill shelter in Georgia,” says Levy. “She was eating a lot and getting fat. Eventually I figured out she was pregnant.” So Levy posted on Dogs of Soma for advice.


“People supplied me with everything. A local dog breeder spent hours helping me as Mila started to give birth. A puppy was born not breathing and she helped me bring him back to life. I now consider myself to be a dog doula,” she says with a laugh.


The number of people invested in Mila and her puppies on social media was astounding. “I work during the day and didn’t expect puppies. After word got out on Dogs of Soma, people I didn’t know would come to my house and check on the puppies and do laundry while I was at work. Everything seemed easy after the message got out to the community,” says Levy.


Mila and her puppies all found good homes thanks to the people in SOMA who volunteered to help.


Levy clearly believes fostering has been a positive influence on her life. “I started hiking with my dogs. I lost weight, and I get a nice sense of euphoria. It even takes away that awkwardness with other people because it doesn’t take much effort to talk about dogs.”


And fostering doesn’t have to take a bite out of the way you live. “There is a dog for every lifestyle,” says Levy. “If you like to chill on the couch, there is a dog for you.” Levy invites SOMA friends to reach out to her on Facebook. She will help you find the right foster.


But what if you really can’t foster?

Liz McCraw volunteers for FAPS: For All Paws Sake and helped transport a litter of collie pups that were dumped at a shelter in Kentucky. They were taken in by a rescue organization in Brooklyn. McCraw is in touch with the family that adopted Piper, the black and white pup farthest right. Below: Kittens with their mother, transported by McCraw.

Liz McCraw lives in South Orange and already has three rescue dogs. She has a tough work and travel schedule, as does her husband. She decided she just couldn’t fit fostering into her way of life. But she wanted to help.


McCraw chose to do so by transporting pets in need. She started volunteering for FAPS: For All Paws Sake.


For All Paws Sake is a highly organized volunteer group that brings animals from high-kill shelters in southern states to areas in the northeast where they are likely to be adopted.


“I’ve been doing this for over six years, and transported over 1,000 animals,” says McCraw.

A pet might be routed from Georgia to Massachusetts. The journey is broken up into roughly one-hour segments. A volunteer drives the pet from one to the next waypoint, where the next volunteer is waiting. Eventually the pet makes it to a place where they are likely to find a forever home.


“When I hand off a dog, I know which rescue they are going to. I can see who adopts the animals and sometimes I can even stay in touch,” says McCraw.


There are a lot of ways to help in addition to fostering. You can be an administrator for a rescue organization, work the phone bank, do email blasts, or work in a capacity that suits you. No matter which path you choose, you are helping pets find homes and drive down the number of New Jersey euthanizations.

Says Levy, “If you want to help, regardless of your situation or level of ability, there is something for everyone to do. No one makes money, but if you’re lucky, you get some snuggles out of it.”


Adrianna Donat’s cat supervised the writing of this story from her computer keyboard.