"In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."
— Alfred Lord Tennyson

"In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."

— Alfred Lord Tennyson

While dogs and cats don't celebrate Valentine's Day, they are susceptible to the passions of spring. As a result, area animal shelters are gearing up for the outcome of those animal affairs — a time of year known as puppy and kitten season.

There's never enough space to house them all.

That's where foster caregivers come in — brave volunteers who are willing to experience a little heartbreak in order to give more animals a chance at a forever home.

Shellie Nuckolls of Medford is one of those volunteers, and she knows the drill. Just days after she returned her foster puppy, Maui, to the Southern Oregon Humane Society adoption center, the Chihuahua mix was adopted.

"A little girl came back for days and played with her, then took her home," reports Nuckolls. "Working with animals is pure enjoyment. It's a blessed feeling from within. They give back to you twice what you give to them."

Sky Loos, education and community outreach coordinator at SOHS, says the shelter had 100 families with unwanted litters on hold last year. An expanded foster-care training program is starting this month to help reduce that number. This is especially important because SOHS is a no-kill shelter, sometimes holding animals for many months until adoption.

"We depend on our volunteers for so much," says Loos. We couldn't offer the appropriate amount of care to these animals without them."

Fostering a shelter pet is just like caring for your own, only you are preparing the animal for a home elsewhere. Usually food, veterinary care and other supplies are taken care of by the sponsoring shelter. House-breaking, walking on a leash and other basic training may be called for. Puppies and kittens may need to be fed every two hours — even through the night.

Bonnie Werly of Central Point, shelter manager at Committed Alliance to Strays (CATS), says about 20 to 25 volunteers take foster animals that can be older, depressed or moms with babies. Werly usually takes the "babies" home herself, sometimes orphans only hours old.

"You have to use a warm cotton ball to stimulate elimination. Grown women cheer when that happens because you have to keep that system working," says Werly. "That and (steady) warmth keeps them alive."

Sometimes animals with special needs — or that are so nervous they appear unadoptable in the shelter — are fostered, says Mary Fister, volunteer coordinator for Jackson County's Friends of the Animal Shelter (FOTAS).

She recently took home part of a litter of pit bull puppies. Care included a lot of play with other dogs and cats and even socialization with visitors.

"Little puppies don't know anything. We kept them in a crate and tried to teach them everything about being a dog," she says. "It was like having a baby, but you can't use a diaper in the middle of the night. They have to go outside. Those were good girls, and they got adopted into good homes."

Each shelter has its own requirements for volunteering. Volunteers need patience, understanding, dedication, an open mind and emotional strength. Both FOTAS and CATS require applications and interviews.

At SOHS, volunteers working with dogs attend a two-part training; cat-handling classes are separate. In addition to a handling video, training helps people with the special issues of bringing a sometimes very adorable animal into their homes, only to have to surrender it to someone else.

"When they leave, it's sad. It jerks your heart," says Nuckolls. "But you know they are ready for their forever home."

In some cases, a foster animal is adopted by the caregiver. Nuckolls adopted Kati, a Chihuahua brought in from California on the Saving Train, a SOHS program that retrieves small dogs in danger of being euthanized. An extreme case, Kati was not expected to survive. She had stopped eating and lost so much weight she was exhibiting neurological symptoms. Hand-fed meals of chicken slowly brought Kati back.

"There's a lot of dedication that goes into it," Nuckolls says. "I made a lot of phone calls to the humane society."

Nuckolls felt better able to care for Kati than others, who might not understand her ongoing special needs. Now, with two dogs, she continues to foster pups.

"If I'm able, I definitely can't say no."