Even though she's always loved animals, Kim Balder didn't have many pets when she was growing up. Her parents believed in "one pet at a time," so Kim recalls her family owning only three dogs and a cat throughout her entire youth.
Those numbers have changed rather drastically since Kim, her husband Bernie, and kids, Josh (20) and Emily (18), were introduced to "Last Hope, Inc., back in 2008.
Kim recalls when she recently had 29 animals in her care at one time. Six cats and four dogs (plus a horse and a bunny) belonged to her own family, the other 17 were foster dogs. The animal farm mayhem lasted over a week, but in the end, all 17 dogs, which included three litters of puppies, were adopted.
Kim is part of a "Last Hope" network of over 50 volunteers who take in foster animals. About 30 of these caregivers take in dogs, 20 or so foster cats, and a few, like Kim, extend their homes to foster both dogs and cats.
"I got involved with Last Hope by chance," Kim admitted. "Pat LeVesque had a cat that had gotten caught in a trap and went through Last Hope to have its leg amputated. I heard about it and called Last Hope president and founder Bev Orr and ended up adopting the cat. After hearing about their program, a light bulb went off and it occurred to me that I could foster animals too. I filled out an online foster application and Angela, the dog coordinator for Last Hope, contacted me right away. Within a week I had my first fosters - five dogs!"
Kim's motto is, "Not being able to do everything is no excuse for not doing everything you can," and her personal records prove to what extent she reaches out - fostering over 364 dogs and eight cats in the past three-and-a half years, of which all have found homes.
"Some volunteers foster only smaller dogs, but I don't care about size or age," she said, referring to dogs ranging from Chihuahuas to Great Danes. "They all need homes." She added, "We do get a lot of Labs. I don't know if they're the most popular or just the most prolific! Chihuahuas and Beagles are also popular."
Kim's volunteer job in providing a pet foster home requires a lot of work: housing, feeding, exercising dogs, and providing basic care, which includes medical attention, administering medication, bathing, grooming...and "loving them," she added.
"These animals need security, emotionally as well as physically, and I hope to provide them with that. Seeing them flourish is my reward for being a volunteer," she stated.
Kim also admits she gets a lot of help from her family.
"Bernie is very supportive, and protective - sometimes he thinks I take on too many dogs," she admits. "But he's helped me in so many ways - from feeding, to fence building to cleaning out kennels, vet pick ups, bathing. There's really no limit to what he'll do for me and the dogs. He makes it possible for me to do as much as I can. I'm really grateful to him.
"The kids support me too," Kim continued. "Sometimes the barking...and the poop...frustrate them, but they've helped with everything from bathing to feeding, to loading my car, unloading supplies, and pick-ups at the vet."
Kennels and facilities at the Balder house are made to accommodate all sizes of dogs.
"Last Hope strives to make animals part of the household, indoor pets if you will," Kim noted. "All my kennels are portable and can be used in my house. I also have a dog run, kennels and separate dog yards outside, from the days when we used to have 16 sled dogs. I also have a fenced in side yard for the dogs."
On Saturdays Kim loads up her foster animals and drives them to Apple Valley Petco for adoption days (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) People look over the animals, and if everything works out, they adopt. If not, the "fosters," as they call themselves, bring the animals back home and hope the next week will bring better results.
"We keep them until they are adopted," Kim said. "I've had a Chihuahua since June, and one of our fosters recently placed a dog she had for nine months."
There are a lot of factors that go into pricing a dog for adoption, which include the age and size of the dog, if they are spayed/neutered at the time of intake, popularity of breed, and medical condition. But what happens when a dog or cat just doesn't get adopted?
"We, at Last Hope, call them failed fosterings, and the foster family usually ends up keeping them. Two of my four dogs are Last Hope foster animals," Kim admited.
"Charlie was my first. He's a Terrier mix, about 30 lbs. and three-years-old. We adopted him when he was six months. "Mr. Freeze was my 2nd. He's a Beagle mix, seven-years-old, about 45 lbs., and blind in one eye. He has a lot of medical issues and came to me as a heartworm positive dog. Being HW (heart worm) positive takes about 4-5 weeks to treat, so I got used to having him around."
Kim's other two dogs, Lizzie, a 12-year-old Jack Russel Terrier, and Beevus, an 11-year-old Shepherd Retriever mix have been family pets since they were puppies.
Kim's work with Last Hope isn't limited to Minnesota canines. Several years ago a shelter called "Pets for Paradise" in the U.S. Virgin Islands sent out messages to shelters and rescue groups in the U.S. that could help them place dogs. This plea resulted in sister shelters in Missouri, Georgia, Florida, New York, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Minnesota.
Kim explains her sometimes late-night runs to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport to pick-up foster dogs, which happens about four times per year.
"There are a lot of stray or abandoned dogs on the island. People can't afford to spay or neuter them, much less care for them. The Pets for Paradise shelter collects the dogs, alters them if the dogs are old enough, and gives them examinations, shots and health certificates so they can travel to the U.S. Each dog travels as a carry-on with a person, so we meet them at the airport, bring the dogs to our vet for a medical re-check, and finally they end up in our foster homes to be adopted."
Kim adds, "Unfortunately, the trip is long, landing in Miami first, so flights don't usually arrive here until late. The last run I made, flights kept getting delayed and I ended up getting back home in Cannon Falls about 3 a.m."
Something that frustrates Kim and her fellow fosters the most are when adopted dogs are returned within a short period of time.
"Adopting a dog shouldn't be thought of as short term," she said. "Pets should be considered as part of the family, good or bad. They shouldn't be given up on when it gets uncomfortable. Given a chance, and some time, things can usually be worked out.
"On the other hand," she added, "I love it when I get emails telling about an adopted dog or cat I fostered. I adopt out a lot of puppies, so it is nice to see how they've grown."
Among Kim's many success stories is the story of Pepsi, "a very difficult" Black Lab mix, who weighed about 50 lbs. and was "incredibly active."
Pepsi was also nuts for tennis balls.
"We could play catch with him for hours," Kim recalled. "He had so much energy. He was adopted and returned to me three times. No one could handle, or harness that level of energy. Finally, we contacted a man with the Brooklyn Park Police Department and they tested him. They work with dogs that have obsessive natures. Pepsi passed all their tests and went into training to become a drug dog for the Brooklyn Park Police Department. It couldn't have been a better match!"
When asked about any specific messages Kim would like to leave with readers, she quickly replied, "I feel it's very important to spay/neuter, give immunizations, and allow pets to be a part of our lives, not just a possession."
She added, "Also, when you think about adding a new furry member to your family, think about adoption from a rescue first. We use petfinder.com as a way to show our animals for adoption. Each animal has a bio, a photo, and a way to contact the foster directly."
Kim can be reached directly at email@example.com or by calling 507-351-6647. Additional information can be found by contacting Last Hope at 651-463-8747, or at www.Last-hope.org, where numbers are listed for dog and cat coordinators; information on fundraising; and how to donate pet supplies and pet food, which, Kim notes, "are always greatly appreciated."