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.