A Day in the Life of a Full-Time Pet Foster Parent

She cares for multiple dogs and cats while getting them ready to find their forever families.

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- Posted on Jan 29, 2020

Allison snuggles three of her foster puppies.

Allison Ilcken slides open the back door of her house in Tampa at 6:30 A.M., just after dawn. Her yard abuts a nature reserve, so lush tree branches drape over the fence. Bald cypress. Southern live oak. Pink milkweed blooms in the garden. A few butterflies flit about in the warm Florida air. Birds chirp. For a split second, it’s serene.

Suddenly, two blurs of brown-and-white fur zip past her, all but shouting, “Go, go, go!” 

Fosters Raphael and Michelangelo, nicknamed for the Ninja Turtles and from a litter of four hound-beagle mixes, hurtle out the door. Followed by Australian-shepherd-cattle-dog-mix Beau and shepherd-mix Izzy—Allison’s daughter Madeline’s dogs—then by Hope, Allison’s younger shepherd-hound, and Lucy, her senior shepherd mix. At 14, Lucy is not as quick on her feet as she used to be. Foster Hannah Mae, a shepherd-mix puppy who has been struggling with a bout of hookworm, slinks out last. Everybody happily snorts and sniffs the grass. 

Allison shuts the door and turns on her Roomba vacuums. “It helps with the fur. I like to keep my house clean. Well, as clean as possible,” she laughs, watching the gang roll around in the yard.

Easier said than done for this full-time animal foster mom, a job she fell into completely by accident almost five years ago. “A friend posted on Facebook about a pregnant hound dog that was urinating blood clots,” she says. “I just couldn’t get that dog out of my mind.” Someone needed to give her a home, even just temporarily. It didn’t take long before Allison, who had grown up on a farm in Ohio and rescued dogs that people would leave on their property, knew that “someone” was her.

The pregnant hound became Allison’s first foster at the Ilcken Zoo (also known as her house). Friends warned that fostering was expensive, so Allison coordinated with Animal Luvr’s Dream Rescue in nearby Riverview to cover veterinary bills. That’s how she became the rescue’s go-to foster mom for mama cats, cautious kittens, playful puppies and dogs of every variety. “We’ve fostered well into the hundreds,” says Allison, stepping over a puppy gate and into a spare bedroom, where Boo, Tony and Lewis barely twitch a whisker to greet her. They’re cats, after all. She cleans the litter boxes—a job she’s sure to stay on top of—as the felines lie on the windowsill.

Luckily, Allison has more help this week—two of her three children, Madeline, 21, and Andy, 18, are visiting from the University of Florida. The extra hands help fill all the food bowls and dispense medicine and supplements to those animals that need it. Sweet senior Lucy gets steroids for her joints every day, while all the cats receive a supplement called lysine to support their immune system. Hannah Mae gets a dose of deworming medicine in her kibble. “Worms are common,” says Allison, who’s constantly washing food bowls and pet beds to avoid further health problems. 

Some of the dogs roughhouse in the backyard, sprinting from one side to the other—what Allison calls their “outside zoomies.” Beau in particular loves to be chased, but he also does his share of running after the puppies. “He’s the fun uncle,” she says, watching as he picks up a toy and darts across the lawn. All three pups bounce after him. “TIME TO EAT!” Allison calls, holding the door open. Each dog trots in, tails wagging and tongues out. Hannah Mae limps to her food bowl. Allison suspects that the puppy’s latest round of antibiotics hasn’t gotten rid of the hookworm.

“Edwin,” Allison says to her husband, “I think Hannah Mae should go to the vet today.” She scribbles down some details about the pup’s condition and hands the note to Edwin, who scoops up Hannah Mae and heads to the car. It’s worrisome when an animal isn’t doing well, but Allison can’t take too much time to wring her hands. There’s always someone else who needs her attention. 

Once the dogs have eaten, it’s outside again for baths. “Beau has allergies, so we have to use a medicated soap,” Allison says. For the others, it’s just about maintenance, especially after they visit the alpaca farm where the Ilckens’ horse, Parker, lives. The dogs love to run and play on the farm, but sometimes they roll in alpaca poop.

Allison unwinds the hose, and she and Madeline get down on their hands and knees by the plastic kiddie pool. They soap up Beau, who was in their first litter of foster puppies and stole their hearts. Madeline’s other dog, Izzy, is another foster fail, from Puerto Rico. And Hope, whose tail is constantly wagging, was hard to find a home for. “She used to have a messy undercarriage,” Allison says. One potential adopter came to meet her and asked, “Is that going to go away? It doesn’t look good.”

Hope was house-trained and got along well with everyone. So what if she looked as if she’d fed a few litters? “The question was offensive to me,” Allison says. She didn’t want to put Hope through meeting any more people like that, so she kept her. 

After baths, the dogs settle into their routine of napping, playing and spending more time outside. Andy chases them around the backyard. The puppies get lunch. Hannah Mae comes back from the vet with a new prescription. Allison carves out some time to clean the house, answer emails, run errands and work out. She’s also a devoted photographer, capturing the animals’ personalities through her camera lens. “I’ve found that it helps place fosters more quickly if they have a good picture.”

All of the care, coordination and medical attention is worth it to Allison. She sees these animals recover from illness and surgeries, build trust in humans, bond with one another (Izzy is the cat whisperer), grow into their personalities and learn that they’re loved. Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye when they get adopted. “If an animal is with us for a particularly long time or has re-turned to us after things didn’t work out with an adoptive family, I get attached,” Allison admits. “But when they do finally find the right family, getting updates on how well they’re doing warms my heart.” She shares those adoption updates, along with the Zoo’s daily happenings, with their more than 11,000 Instagram (@ilckenzoo) followers—many of whom donate food, supplements, toys and more through Allison’s Amazon wish list. 

By five, it’s dinnertime. Cats and dogs first, then humans. Around 6:30, the crowd gathers around Allison as she finishes loading the dishwasher. “Do you want to go to the dog park?” Everybody wags their tails. 

She, Edwin and Madeline split the leashes and walk 20 minutes to the park, where it’s usually busy the hour before sunset. Today is no exception, but Beau, Izzy, Hope, Lucy, Michelangelo, Raphael and Hannah Mae still have plenty of room to get out one last burst of energy. Allison can see the joy on their faces. “It means a lot to them to come here,” she says. “Maybe I’m guilty of giving dogs human feelings, but it’s what I’d want if I were a dog.” 

She throws a ball and Beau chases after it in the fading light. It’s been a long day, but nothing else feeds Allison’s soul quite like caring for animals. “I’m a canine-trovert. I prefer animals to people,” she says. She watches and smiles as the Ninja Turtle puppies play-fight with Hannah Mae. It’s obvious there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing. As she captioned an Instagram photo of five of the dogs sitting in a wagon, “If you think my wagon is full…you should see my heart!”

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