If a homeless animal had a best friend, it would probably look a lot like Betsy Banks Saul.

Betsy has saved tens of millions of pets’ lives—yes, you read that right—through the ground-breaking rescue website she founded, Petfinder.com. The site allows would-be adopters to search out adoptable pets in their area from groups and shelters across North America. Along the way, she changed both public perception of rescue animals and how people adopt pets. Now she aims to do the same for foster animals.

It is not hyperbole to say Petfinder revolutionized pet adoption. The idea for the site came to Betsy and her then-husband, Jared Saul, in December 1995 as they discussed what the Internet could do to help shelter animals. One month later, Petfinder was up and running.

It was hard work, with Betsy and her husband personally contacting groups and entering the adoptable pets, but for the first time, there was one database for adoptable animals in need of a home. Eventually, Betsy organized an unprecedented 14,000 shelters and rescue groups—nearly every organization across North America—so their adoptable pets were searchable through one place. “Everybody played in one sandbox,” says the Missouri native proudly. And it worked: in the last 20 years the number of animals euthanized annually has dropped from a shocking 20 million animals to 2.7 million, a big step in the right direction.

Wanting Petfinder to have an international reach, Betsy sold the website to Discovery Communications in 2006 for $35 million—that’s the kind of profile and traffic the site sees—and remained involved until Nestle Purina bought the site in 2013. But after leaving the company, “something kept me up in the middle of the night,” Betsy says. “I felt like I left some unfinished business on the table. We had done great things for adoptable animals—Petfinder was rockin’ and rollin’—but there were all these pets being left behind.” Animals were being euthanized because the shelters weren’t adopting them out quickly enough, or because there wasn’t enough space. “And there were all these animals that don’t belong in shelters like birds and goats and horses, and other animals that were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Not one to rest on her laurels, Betsy set to work on a new venture, one with the aim of catching the pets that fall through the cracks—and last spring, Betsy, along with Eric and Traci Theis, launched 911fosterpets.com. Already, it’s doing for fostering what Petfinder did for adoption.

Not every homeless animal can be taken in at the shelter, explains Betsy. A foster home is an in-between home, or a place to crash—and it saves lives. “Some animals are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some animals just need a family for a day or two while transportation is being set up to get them to their rescue partners, or a couple of weeks to become old enough to qualify for adoption. Sometimes an adopter is interested in a pet but can’t take it yet. If the shelter is full, we can hold pets until a space opens up.”

To get the fostering site up and running, Betsy, along with Eric and Traci, started reaching out to shelters and foster parents, and got companies Merck and PetMeds on board. With an eventual goal of seeing a foster home on every block, 911fosterpets was born.
So far, animals on the site have been viewed over one million times and the associated groups have received thousands of foster offers.

It’s making a real difference. When someone fosters a pet, they not only save that pet’s life, but they also open a kennel space for another homeless pet in need, says co-founder Traci.

“Moms with kittens or puppies, pregnant dogs and cats and dogs and cats with treatable colds who typically need two weeks out of the shelter, are all examples of pets who are being euthanized simply because the shelters don’t have the space to care for them until they are adoptable,” she says. “Two to four weeks in someone’s home can save the lives of many pets.”

While they have their foster pet, foster parents can teach the animal what Traci calls lifesaving skills—“for example, for a younger dog or puppy, learning to love their crate is an invaluable lesson that will help prevent the pup from becoming another tragic statistic at a shelter in the future,” she says.

“Fostering provides a safe, loving place for our furry friends to call home for a little while—somewhere where they can experience what it feels like to be loved and cherished, without all the stress of a shelter environment,” Traci continues. “Fostering a pet turns an everyday person into a hero.”

There are benefits for humans, too. Fostering allows people with limited bandwidth to reap the benefits of pet ownership and feed their need to make the world a better place.

Anyone—millennials who don’t have time for a full-time pet and retirees who travel for months at a time—can be a foster pet parent if they can carve out a chunk of time, says Betsy.

Melissa Troche began fostering dogs after her two children begged for a pet. Over the past seven years, the Clearwater, Florida-based family has fostered 19 dogs through Rugaz Rescue, a Florida organization and 911fosterpets.com participant that rescues dogs scheduled for euthanasia.

“We found a need out there that we were able to contribute to, and it’s really rewarding,” says the single mother. “Many of the dogs have been neglected or abused, and we see them come back to life. It’s good for the soul and good for the spirit and it rewards you in a way you can’t even begin to describe.”

The lessons her children, now 22 and 14, have learned from fostering are invaluable, Melissa says. “They’ve learned to care for something other than themselves. I’m not sure that they would have gotten those lessons from school.”

Traci agrees.

Now that she and Eric have a son, Jasper, fostering pets is paramount, Traci says. “It enables us to teach him about compassion for animals and caring for others while also giving back to our community.”

Traci says people don’t realize that even a short-term commitment can save an animal’s life. One of the goals of 911fosterpets is simply to raise awareness of the benefits of fostering.

“If more people knew, they would step up and foster,” Traci says. “Veterinary care and often many, if not all expenses are covered. [These pets] just need a family to love them and care for them until they can go up for adoption or find their forever family.”

Fostering also allows for a no-commitment getting-to-know-you period, as opposed to adoption, which Betsy jokingly likens to an arranged marriage.

“When you see a pet at a shelter and you take it home, it’s a miracle when it works out—you haven’t really met yet,” she says. Fostering, she says, allows prospective pet owners to dip their toes in. “It’s a great way to ‘try before you buy,’ and be a little more circumspect about who you invite into your home for 10 years.”

Many times, fostering has a happy ending.

Lots of pets find their forever home with their foster parents, which Betsy calls “foster failures.’’ She herself has had many foster failures, including her German Shepherd mix, Jake, and her mixed breed rescue named Sophie. She’d realized that she had fallen in love with Sophie when she found herself not wanting to receive calls from potential adopters. 

Fostering also allows rescue dogs the precious time they may need to find the right match; sometimes it takes a while for the right family to show up. Betsy recalls fostering a 10-year-old female Golden Retriever in the late 1990s. The previous owner had gotten married and was forced to give up his pet.

The dog was so depressed she couldn’t pick her head up for weeks until a family with young children came to see the dog.
The dog “was bouncing and skipping around,” says Betsy. “I cried when the dog left but I knew that the dog was a good fit… The dog was so happy and had found her purpose and her family. Fostering can be so rewarding.”

Other times, endings are bittersweet.

Betsy once picked up a stray, dying Cocker Spaniel mix from the shelter.

“I didn’t want her to die in a shelter—she deserved to die in a dog bed in a home. I talked them into letting me take the dog home,” she says. Three days later, the dog passed away, but she did so with dignity and surrounded by love.

A lifelong animal lover, Betsy credits her parents for instilling in her the urge to help others. “I translated that ethic onto all beings and never differentiated between people and animals,” she says.

These days, the 49-year-old former park ranger divides her time between her homes in Crystal Beach, Florida, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which she shares with about 40 rescue animals. In addition to her current dogs, Jake and Cattle Dog mix Pinto, she has five cats, cows, two goats, five horses, a donkey, a box turtle, eight guinea hens, and 16 chickens. In short, she lives it, and helping animals is her life’s work.

“It’s about the golden rule,” says Betsy. “Everyone needs a hand up sometimes.”

*Find a pet to foster at 911fosterpets.com. It could change both your life and the life of the pet you foster.