Among dog beds, bowls, toys, and crates, a young woman is surrounded by 10 dogs vying for her attention. She knows she has one more dog to walk for the night and another who needs one-on-one time before she can eat dinner. It’s almost 10 o’clock and there is a pile of homework waiting to be done. While a few dogs dance at her feet and others watch her expectantly, she runs through a mental checklist to ensure the day’s medical requirements have been met.
Six of the dogs need daily medication for a variety of ailments. Check. One dog needs physical therapy for two torn ACLs that were recently operated on. Check. Another dog requires ear drops for an infection. Check. Two dogs are on restricted activity that warrants crate rest. Check. The young woman takes a deep breath and looks around. She sees an organized mess and happy dogs. She knows it’s well worth the chaos.
Alissa Umberger is no ordinary young woman. She is a college freshman who began rescuing animals at the age of 13 in her hometown of Waco, Texas. Now at the age of 18, Umberger has seen more animal rescue in the last five years than most people see in their lifetimes. Though she started her quest by photographing shelter animals, the long and often tough road has brought her to fostering hospice dogs—dogs who were dumped at the shelter in their end days, rescued from neglectful owners or found wandering the streets.
What started this magnificent journey was a cat named Delilah, whom her family adopted from the Waco Animal Shelter. Shortly after that, Umberger began volunteering there. That’s where she met Sasha, a German shepherd/husky mix who was adopted and returned multiple times.
“I sort of got involved with photography by accident. I took Sasha to the park and I snapped a photo of her on my mom’s Kodak camera. I submitted the photo to the shelter and they made it her photo on their website. So because of her, I made it my mission to save them through photos,” Umberger said.
Umberger has photographed more than 500 shelter dogs, helping to find homes for just over 300 of them. Though it always takes a small village to save just one animal, Umberger feels good knowing she can be a part of that village.
However, when Umberger learned that animals were being euthanized at the shelter, she knew she needed to do more to save them.
“When they were gone I assumed they were adopted,” she said. She decided to start fostering dogs.
“I found out about the fostering program and picked out a dog named Rhyder, who I previously had photographed. I contacted a shelter employee but it turned out he was euthanized that same day. Ever since, I’ve fostered as many at a time that I can handle. I’ve had a few slip through the cracks and I cannot let it happen again,” Umberger said.
Through the years, Umberger has fostered more than 100 dogs while taking care of five of her own. She is busy with college and also works part time. Umberger still offers free photo shoots for animals who need adopting, and spends time assisting rescues with fundraisers, managing social media accounts, screening applications, performing home visits, and volunteering at adoption events. She volunteers with an out-of-state rescue, and helps with vet appointments and transport for Texas dogs heading to Washington.
But what really tugs at her heart strings are the dogs who are in dire straits–like Janie, a severely ill stray who needed serious medical attention. Janie only lived two weeks with Umberger but taught the Texan teen a hard life lesson.
“Saving them is taking whatever hand they were dealt, no matter how bad, and looking for the best option. It’s putting your own feelings aside, no matter how badly it hurts, and repairing their suffering. The least we can do is love and cherish them for their days left, and setting them free of their painful life,” said Umberger.
Hospice foster wasn’t something Umberger necessarily sought out, though she tends to gravitate toward medical cases. Rocky, who lived for three months after she found him, was diagnosed with nasal sarcoma. Ethel, who lived for six weeks after being rescued from owner neglect, was diagnosed with end stage kidney failure. Janie had severe heartworms. Ellie, a stray, had a mast cell tumor removed and lived for another two and a half years before she was diagnosed with a rare cancer.
Not all of the hard cases have hard endings. Elton, who appeared to be headed for hospice care, is winning the fight against stage-4 heartworms and recovering nicely.
Umberger remembers every dog who has passed through her care, all of the struggles they have endured, and the excruciating heartbreak of having to let them go. It’s been far from easy but if fostering has taught her anything, it has taught her how important second chances are.
“I do what I do because at the end of the day, when I lay in a bed full of dogs who were slated for death, I’m reminded that there is greatness in each of these dogs. And if I don’t keep doing it, who will find their greatness? I’ve lost good dogs waiting for someone else to help them and I won’t do that again,” Umberger said.
The young animal rescuer is not sure what the future holds. Her hospice dogs have taught her to appreciate the moment. So for now, she is taking each day as it comes. But as long as there are animals in need, that’s where she’ll be.