Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Visit to the Local Shelter

It had been a long while since I’d volunteered at a shelter.  When I used to volunteer at a different shelter a million or so years ago, I had the enjoyable assignment of walking dogs.  And I really hoped my first day of volunteering with this other shelter would be spent walking dogs again.  Yes, that’s what I hoped for despite the old adage, “Be careful what you ask for…you just might get it,” creeping into my mind repeatedly as I walked across the parking lot to the shelter’s front door.

Silently telling myself to stop replaying that saying in my mind, I drew a breath, walked through the door, and announced to the young lady at the shelter’s front desk, “I’m here to help!”  The woman greeted me and instructed me to head to the back of the shelter as there was a bunch of people back there who could use assistance.  I did as I was told and quickly realized that the woman’s definition of “a bunch of people” was three individuals.

Approaching the bunch, I asked one of its members, “How can I help?”  In response, the young lady I’d addressed immediately led me to a small kitchen where she hurriedly prepared a mixture of Beneful, canned Pedigree, and Gravy Train.  Fighting my urge to gag at the picture and smell of the combined dog foods, I began stuffing various Kongs with the mixture as I’d been told to do.  As I filled what had to have been the fifteenth or sixteenth Kong, I began to tell my companion a little bit about myself in an effort to build a little camaraderie.  Even though I know I’m not the world’s most interesting woman (which I guess is why I don’t do beer commercials), I was surprised when the woman said nothing in response to my statements.

I looked up from my mess, I mean work, and realized I was all alone in the tiny kitchen…and I was talking to myself and an audience of partially stuffed rubber dog toys.  Having finally stuffed the last Kong, I put all of them in the freezer and envisioned some homeless dogs enjoying them later that day.  As I cleaned the kitchen, I wondered if the dogs would approach their snacks as popsicles or toys and if they’d be surprised by what was inside of them.

Having put the kitchen back in order, I went to find someone who could tell me what I should do next.  As I searched, I heard an alarm.  Since the sprinklers didn’t come on and no one appeared to be sprinting out of the shelter’s emergency exits, I guessed the alarm wasn’t anything I needed to be too concerned with.  I was 90% sure everything was okay.  My confidence dropped to about 70% when I failed to find someone in the next minute and the alarm continued to sound a warning about something or other.

Finding none of the bunch in the back of the shelter, I made my way back to the front desk.  The woman who’d originally welcomed me earlier in the day suggested that I could check on the laundry.  And thus began my search for the shelter’s washing machine and dryer.

Winding my way through the shelter’s labyrinth of hallways and doors, I found two washing machines in different locations.  And I identified the location of the alarm.  The alarm was in the form of a nine week-old kitten who was not happy about being in a kennel even though it was quite spacious.  I couldn’t resist the temptation to read the kitty’s identification card and was soon surprised to learn that Ghost, named for his rather eerie white color, had been displaced from his home because he refused to get along with another cat.

I remember thinking, “Are you kidding me?  Ghost is just a baby.  He’s barely as big as my hand!”  I felt really bad that Ghost’s previous owners hadn’t given him more of a chance in their home and tried to brighten the little guy’s day by putting a toy in his kennel.  Not even my kind gesture silenced Ghost’s meows.

Remembering my task, laundry, I left Ghost to sounding his perennial alarm and went back to change out loads of clothes and towels.  While new loads were laundered, I folded what had already been washed and straightened out the shelter’s linen and food storage area.  With the laundry caught up, I again returned to the front desk for another assignment.  Noticing that I was a bit disappointed to learn that everything in the shelter was as caught up as the laundry, the young lady mentioned that a dog or two still needed to be walked and asked if I was interested.  I enthusiastically told her, “I would love to walk a dog!  Any dog.  Big or small.  It doesn’t matter.”

When she heard my answer, her eyes lit up with laughter which she tried to hide by turning away from me.  When she turned back to face me, only a sheepish smile betrayed her amusement…only a sheepish smile made me realize I might have made a mistake…only THAT sheepish smile made me realize I was about to walk a big dog, perhaps one even bigger than myself.

As I contemplated heading out to purchase a saddle, the woman said, “I’ll go get Buster then.”  “Buster?”  I wondered.  “Did he get his name because he busts people?  What have I done!?!”

When the woman returned from the back with Buster in tow, it didn’t take me long to see he was a bit energetic and to notice Buster’s powerful strength as he demonstrated both traits while dragging me out the shelter’s door.  Buster pulled me outside so quickly and determinedly that I didn’t even have time to ask if he knew any commands or make sure my life insurance policies were current.

I soon realized it didn’t matter if he knew commands or not.  Buster’s sole goal was to run and get away from me.  I can’t prove it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the shelter’s staff and volunteers were huddled in a corner laughing while Buster ran circles around me, grabbed his leash, and finally tackled me to the ground.

I didn’t even bother dusting myself off as I picked myself off of the ground since I knew it would only be a matter of time before I was knocked on my rump again.  I wanted to cry…and cry for help, but realized neither would do any good.  No one would be able to hear me over Ghost’s “alarm,” much less help me.  So I watched Buster run from side to side while silently praying he would stop and be still long enough for me to catch my breath.

In between a Hail Mary and an Our Father, I thought, “What in the world would I do if he starts to drag me all over town or gets loose?  What would I do then?  I should never, ever have said that I could handle a big dog!”  In between other prayers, I thought, “I might never get him back inside the shelter!  Oh, my word!  I might never make it back inside myself!”

Somehow (I personally think it was by the grace of God), Buster and I did eventually make it back to the shelter.  When Buster pulled me indoors, I saw that woman…and that same sheepish grin.  The lady asked, “How did it go?”  I don’t know why she bothered to ask when the answer was written all over my face.  I looked and felt like I’d just run the Boston Marathon without having trained first, after all.

I responded, “He’s crazy!”  In turn the woman observed, “Yes, he’s a little hyper.”  I thought, “A LITTLE hyper?  That’s like saying Mt. Everest is a little hill…that’s like saying a giant squid would make a single, little plate of calamari…that’s like saying the upcoming presidential election is a little political contest!  But…okay, whatever YOU say.  He’s a little hyper.”

As the woman led Buster back to his kennel, I realized I hadn’t even spoken to the dog during our lengthy time together.  Maybe it was because my time with him was consumed with prayers for my, I mean our survival.  Maybe it was because my breath had been knocked out of me a time or two.  Maybe it was because I didn’t have anything to say to the barely controllable creature and he had too much energy to listen.  I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter, does it?

I considered asking the woman if there was anything else I could do before I left for the day, but then remembered she’d said multiple dogs needed to be walked.  Fearing Buster’s equally energetic brother and/or sister might be in the back, I collected my things, turned on my bruised heel, and left, thus ending my first day of volunteering at the shelter.  I was beat…by Buster.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

One Observation in the World of Animal Welfare

Compared to other people, I have not been involved with the animal welfare world long.  I have no professional experience working with animals and I have only been volunteering with animal-related organizations for a year or so.  Yet, I find my experience in this relatively new “world” to be strikingly similar to those of people who’ve advocated for animals for years or even decades in both paid and unpaid positions.

I’m not talking about the joy of seeing a dog or cat go home with a new, loving family.  I’m also not talking about the wonderful feeling that comes from seeing a lost pet be reunited with his or her family.  And I’m not talking about the satisfaction that results from helping an organization to raise money so it can continue its operations.  Instead, I’m talking about my experience with people who choose to work with animals for a profession.  Specifically, I’m talking about my interactions with people who choose to labor in shelters and/or rescues in exchange for an hourly wage.

I have had the pleasure to meet many people who work in rescues and shelters during the months since I originally became involved with animal welfare issues.  While these individuals seem to come from many different backgrounds and have just as many different motivations for being in their chosen field, there seems to be a pattern of behavior that is readily apparent among the majority of them.

In general, these laborers are hard-working, dedicated individuals who genuinely care about the animals in their charge.  They are the ones cleaning kennels while everyone else is home enjoying a given holiday, for example.  In general, they also seem to be willing to share the details of their personal lives with just about anyone who will listen. 

They also seem to move around a lot, meaning they tend to leave one organization after a relatively brief tenure only to take a position similar to the one just vacated with another shelter or rescue.  Finally, they, for the most part, are more skilled at tending to animals than they are at communicating and interacting with other people.

I don’t know why this is.  Maybe it’s because many of these individuals come from abusive backgrounds.  Maybe it’s because many of these people seem to be perpetuating the cycle of abuse by being in relationships with verbally and/or physically abusive partners.  Or maybe it’s because they simply prefer interacting with animals to dealing with other people.  I just don’t know.

I do know, though, that their inability or overt refusal to act more kindly towards their coworkers and a given shelter’s volunteers and visitors is often counterproductive to an organization’s goal of adopting out animals.  I’m not saying that these people are deliberately sabotaging a rescue’s attempts to find new homes for the companion animals between its walls.  I am simply making the obvious point that potential adopters can be put off when a worker does not acknowledge them, is not enthusiastic about their arrival or interest in a particular animal, does not help them, or welcomes them with a story about a personal issue unrelated to their interest in adopting a dog or cat.

These workers do their best every day, just like the rest of us, to do what is right for the dogs and cats in the shelter or rescue they represent.  And I’m grateful for all of their efforts just as I’m grateful for all of the wonderful animal-related organizations that exist in the animal welfare world.  As grateful as I am, however, I’m just as eager for these organizations to invest in the people who work for them.

If an organization decides to pay to educate its staff about how to properly and effectively communicate and interact with people in a professional manner, it may not only succeed in adopting out more animals, it may also reduce its staff turnover.  Instead of criticizing charities for spending money on courses and materials that can be used to develop its staff, we should examine the very real, potential benefits of an organization doing just that.

I believe that the vast majority of money that a charitable organization collects should be used to protect and preserve the animals it cares for.  But I also believe that some funds should be dedicated to things that will help the organization operate in a more productive manner, including communication classes.

While I have had some frustrating, if not insulting interactions with shelter workers in the past, I believe they are the backbone of the organizations I serve as a volunteer.  And I believe they deserve the chance to improve their skills in every area, including communication, just as much as the workers in corporate America do.  I believe they are worth the investment.