By SEAN BARRON
YOUNGSTOWN -- When Susan Sexton isn't teaching a music class at Youngstown State University, giving private trumpet lessons or working as a massage therapist, she is acting as a foster parent to two of her nine cats.
"We have three dogs and seven cats of my own," Sexton said. "I had a four-cat limit."
The number of cats that found safe refuge at Sexton's North Side home have continued to grow, however.
An 8-week-old animal she took in was abandoned in Crandall Park and another was found on Ohio Avenue after it was the victim of a hit-and-run accident that left the cat's jaw and pelvis fractured. A third cat was dropped off at a veterinarian's office after being left in a condemned house.
Sexton is one of several Mahoning Valley residents who serve as foster parents to unwanted dogs, cats and other animals until room can be found in a shelter for them.
Once in a shelter, the animals are cared for until a permanent home is available, barring serious illness or behavioral problems. Polly Wardle of Leetonia, co-founder of Angels for Animals Inc. in Greenford, said she's been a foster care parent for the 12 years since she started Angels.
Wardle, who's working with six puppies at her home, said those who love fostering animals usually express a feeling of accomplishment, and increase the chances that the dog or cat will become more adoptable.
"If the person is willing to take care of the animal in foster care, we assume he will take care of it in general. About 25 percent of first-time fosters will keep [the animal]," Wardle said.
Also preparing a total of 13 dogs for adoption by acting as foster caregivers are various inmates at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Coitsville Township, as well as the Trumbull Correctional Institution in Warren.
The nonviolent prisoners work with the animals for up to two months, doing obedience training, among other things, Wardle added.
"The dogs come back and are adoptable," she said. "The inmates "work with problem dogs and it gives [the animals] a chance."
Gina Lang, an Angels for Animals volunteer, said kittens in particular benefit from foster care partly because of how difficult it is to shelter them initially.
Most kittens need to be in a home setting because they're susceptible to illness being around other animals in a shelter at such a young age, Lang said.
Angels for Animals and other shelters are almost always full, she said, adding that the facility can get up to hundreds of calls each day from people wanting to find spaces for an animal.
Lang also stressed the importance of spaying and neutering kittens and puppies; the low-cost services reduce the number of unwanted animals.
A three-year foster care provider, Lang said it takes about an hour each day for her to socialize, handle, feed, groom and clean up after her four to five kittens.
Lang noted that her two teenage sons and husband help provide a needed service for the animals, which she keeps for an average of two to six months.
Sexton said she tries to get homes for her animals as soon as possible, giving some to friends, as well as relying on word of mouth.
In addition to working toward gaining her animals' trust and getting them neutered, Sexton said her experiences have caused her to become more vigilant.
"I always look in driveways as I drive. I look for dogs that are chained or cats being abused, and I call if I think something should be investigated," Sexton said.
For more information about foster care, spaying and neutering and other programs, call Angels for Animals at (330) 549-1111.