When Ashley Ellis takes Bella for a walk on Bayshore Boulevard, passers-by sometimes stop to ask Ellis about the 8-month-old, 35-pound pit bull.
Ellis can tell them all about how Bella spent two weeks in a shelter, nervous and scared. She can tell them how now Bella is friendly, playful and best friends with Ellis' year-old Boston terrier.
And, if they're interested, she can tell them how they can bring Bella home for themselves.
Bella is a foster dog. She lives with Ellis, who works in advertising, and Avery, her Boston terrier, in their South Tampa home.
Avery loves everything, Ellis said, including dogs, people and playtime. So she loves Bella, too.
"When I brought Bella home, she was beyond excited. They just played nonstop," Ellis said. "Being in my home has helped her slowly transition, so when she finds a forever home, she'll be ready to go, with no issues, healthy and happy."
For the dogs at the county shelter, this kind of chance can mean the difference between life and death.
The fostering program at Hillsborough County Animal Services isn't new, but general awareness of the shelter among county residents has been an ongoing hurdle, said director Ian Hallett.
Animal services takes in 21,000 animals a year, and of those, 9,500 are dogs and 10,500 are cats. Of the animals the shelter takes in, 13,000 are euthanized each year.
An average of 58 animals come into the shelter a day, Hallett said, though he said it's closer to 90 or 100 a day in the summer.
The shelter has about 150 animals in foster homes right now, Hallett said. Fostering can be a good alternative, especially for animals with medical issues or for animals that need obedience training. It also can expose animals to people around the county who might not otherwise venture to the Falkenburg Road shelter.
Some animals are with a foster for just a few days, while others can spend up to six months with a foster depending on individual medical or behavioral needs. Foster families pay for basic pet supplies like food. The shelter covers all medical expenses, such as spaying and neutering.
They shelter is working on building a list of people interested in fostering. Potential fosters fill out an adoption application and foster application. The shelter works with foster families to find the animal a permanent home.
Hallett took over as director about 13 months ago. His management has recently come into question after two of the shelter's three full-time veterinarians left in recent weeks, and some volunteers and leaders of animal welfare groups have complained about overcrowding and more animals getting sick.
Yielding more success from the foster program could help stem the criticism.
Other groups like Rescue Me Tampa - Shelter Dogs and Rescue Me Tampa - Foster Dogs use Facebook to circulate pictures and get the word out about dogs in need of homes. Shelters like the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and Guardian Angel Dog Rescue in Tampa work with fosters, too.
"The ones being fostered are the ones that have no other voice," said Cathy Carr, animal services adoption-rescue coordinator. "The other alternative is euthanasia."
Amy Howland of Tampa is the president of Dogma Pet Rescue. Dogma rescues dogs from shelters, but doesn't have its own facility. All of the group's volunteers foster.
The group started in 2010 and has saved more than 700 dogs, said Howland, a paralegal.
"To say we've made a huge impact on the world, no," Howland said, "but we've made a difference to those dogs and we've made a difference to the families we've adopted those dogs to who say their family is complete."
Lisa Presnail of St. Petersburg has fostered more than 30 dogs over the past six years. She's a photographer with a studio in Tampa, and when she learned about the trouble shelters have finding homes for some dogs, she started the Little Pet Project to take more glamorous photos of the overlooked dogs and draw more attention to them.
"They need something special," she said. "They're a dog that maybe has been in fostering for six months or a year."
She said it's common to hear people say they aren't ready for a dog, but with fostering "you don't have to commit forever," she said.
Eva Areias, owner of the Bead Boutique in Brandon, began volunteering at the county shelter a few months ago. She and her husband, Frank Perrulli, have fostered dogs, some of which have become "foster failures," the tongue-in-cheek name for people who end up officially adopting the dogs they've fostered.
She has a crate at the store and brings in her dogs to introduce to customers she hopes will become inspired to learn more about fostering and adoption.
One customer came in to make earrings, fell in love with Areias' dog Maggie and went to the shelter the next day to adopt a dog of her own.
"I just cried," Areias said.
"It's so rewarding. It's such a great feeling when you know you've saved a dog's life. It takes a village, as they say. This really is an amazing village."
The county shelter has adopted out about 9,000 animals since Hallett took the position last May. The year before his arrival, 7,000 animals were adopted out.
"It's definitely progress, but we have a lot more to do," he said. "We are still less than halfway there. Right now the most important thing is just more people coming into the shelter."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.