My name is Leah Heiser. My husband, Ben, and I moved to Columbia in November 2017 and we immediately fell in love with this place. As soon as we got settled in, I started researching rescue groups in the area. At first just to have them on hand, but then to see if there were any I could foster for. As it turns out, Columbia is hurting for animal rescue groups. But it’s an extremely difficult and wearing job, so I’m not that surprised that very few people have stepped into that role. However, Maury County Animal Services kept popping up in my search.
In the middle of me having an internal debate about whether or not to work with MCAS, the Kitten Lady posted a video addressing this topic. I’ll link to it here, but to sum it up: SHELTERS. NEED. HELP. Their “bad” reputation comes down to not having enough resources to make the animals as comfortable as we’d like to see them. After that, there was no question in my mind. I wanted to be a resource for MCAS. I can’t speak for every shelter across the whole of the United States, but Maury County uses every resource they have to provide for the animals they care for. Even down to the little things like treats at the door, hammocks in the cat kennels, and a big bowl of water in the lobby. And the big things like having a veterinarian on site, two huge fenced areas out front for the dogs to play in, and a room inside stocked with toys where people can interact with the animals. It took no time at all for me to truly love and appreciate the staff. So why was I there? Well, as I mentioned above, I was trying to find a way to foster.
I am an Arizona native and grew up in the cold mountains of Pinetop-Lakeside (about 2 hours south east from Flagstaff and 4 hours north east from Phoenix, for reference). During my last year in Arizona, I moved to Tucson to go to the University of Arizona. While down there, I was living in a studio sized house that wasn’t that cramped and had a pretty open floor plan. I knew I wanted to foster an animal, but I also knew I couldn’t take in a dog. But I had the perfect set up for a cat. So I got in touch with a rescue group in Tucson, called SARA, filled out an application and waited for “the call”. It was only a day later when Emily called me and told me about a cat that would be perfect for my situation. He was really anxious around other animals and was living in a bathroom at the time because he drew blood from another cat. A day or two after that, I went to pick him up. His name was Azul, he was a Blue Russian, and he was ecstatic to be in a much bigger bathroom, aka my studio apartment.
Ben, who was my long-distance boyfriend at the time, fell in love with him via Skype and saw the bond that Azul and I had formed and demanded we adopt him. I caved. I couldn’t say no. Azul was my little shadow and my best buddy; he is my first foster-fail. But then I faced the problem that because he didn’t do well with other animals, my dreams of fostering other cats were over for as long as he was living. A few months after we adopted him, we packed up and moved to Nashville. Again, into a studio apartment. IT WAS CRAMPED. But I started thinking that maybe I could rehabilitate Azul into liking other animals again. It just wasn’t going to happen in our current situation. But I held on to the dream of fostering.
After a year and a half in Nashville, we move to Columbia and into a much bigger place. THREE whole bedrooms, a huge living room, a kitchen with COUNTERS. It was the biggest bathroom Azul had ever lived in. From the moment I unpacked the truck, fostering was always in the back of my mind. It could work now. We have the space. They could have a room and Zu could have the whole house. It wouldn’t impose on him at all now. I can do this. After rearranging our guest room into a cat room, convincing Ben to let me foster, and having a long chat with Azul…I started looking for rescues and found MCAS.
So I did it! I brought my home my first group of fosters. A mom cat I named Duchess and her four babies – Berlioz, Marie, Toulouse, and O’Malley. I had spent so much time getting her room set up, making sure it was warm enough, she had enough stuff to do to keep her entertained, and then finally she was there with all four of her little jelly beans. I was on cloud nine! Until… I checked on Azul. He was pissed, to say the least. That boy growled and hissed at me for the first time ever. Directly at me, there was no mistaking it. I was shocked and sad and questioning if I had made the right decision. I asked myself if I considered his feelings enough in making this decision. If I should have waited a little longer. If I should have done it at all.
The beginning was rough. He was mad at me, he hissed and growled at the door to the foster room, he didn’t want any kind of affection from me at all. But after a few weeks he finally started coming around. Now, three foster groups deep, and he will play with the babies as long as I bring them out one at a time (more than one is overwhelming to him and he runs away). My Azul has come so far and I couldn’t be prouder of him! He’s the best Uncle Zuzu to all our foster babies.
The second group I had came without a mom so they were my lost boys, my Neverland Crew – Wendy, Tiger Lilly, Pockets, Rufio, and Peter Pan. And my last fosters, another group of mom less boys, were the Commanders in Chief, The Presidents – Lincoln, Franklin, Truman, Monroe and Teddy (Theodore). I had them for 4th of July, it was fitting. On Tuesday I pick up a mom who just gave birth about a week ago and they get to hang out with me until they are 6 weeks old. At that point, they go back to the shelter to wait for adoption. Azul is taking this in stride now and I see progress every single day I have fosters here. Thanks to him and my wonderful husband, my dream of being a foster is alive and THRIVING.
I want to end this by asking you to consider helping MCAS. Their list of needs is never ending but there’s so many places to start. They need funds, they need donations, they need volunteers, they need fosters. If you don’t have money, you can donate old blankets. If you don’t have material donations, you can donate your time. They need people to walk the dogs, play with the cats, change water bowls, litter boxes, and clean kennels. If you don’t have time to make that drive and hang out for an hour, they need people to foster both cats and dogs. If you can give them even one hour of your time a week, or some space in your home, they would be thrilled. It’s so easy to pass judgement on state funded shelters. It’s easy to walk in there and see the dirty bowls and the crowded kennels and wonder why they don’t do a better job. But YOU can help. You can help lessen the burden. You can be the saving grace for not only the staff, but the animals as well. All you have to do is show up and let them know how you can be of service. I guarantee they will be grateful!
If you want to follow along with the progress of my fosters, I’m documenting everything on my Instagram account @firststepfoster.
Maury County Animal Shelter
1233 Mapleash Ave,