Give 'Em Shelter
What one anonymous volunteer learned about people by helping out at an animal shelter.
What I’ve Learned About People Working in an Animal Shelter
Volunteering to work in a local shelter to assist needy members of the four-legged world, a Westchester woman gains some unexpected insights into the human animal along the way.
Nearly seven years ago, I parked my car across the street from our local animal shelter. I’d heard the barking before and, perhaps like most
people, tried not to think about what went on inside. I was on my way to do something else when I spied him, a handsome collie-mix out for a walk. I went over and crouched down to introduce myself, chatting with his handler from dog-level. I couldn’t keep my hands off him—Manfred. The woman walking him chuckled and said, “You ought to go inside and ask about volunteering.” The suggestion was irresistable.
I still pull onto that rather shabby street with eagerness. Just as there are some people who need to make art or work at quadratic equations, there are people who need the touch and companionship of animals. I am one of those. Like others who volunteer their time at shelters, I feel privileged to get to work with these cats and dogs and am passionate about trying to make their lives a little better.
It’s true that there is something about the sight of an animal that deeply affects us humans. Some people are soothed and calmed; some people are extremely afraid of cats and dogs; some people become bullies and brutes.
And then there are the tough guys, both male and female, who unexpectedly go all soft and, well, caring when confronted with a furry creature. I’ve seen cops—with guns—take the trouble to gently lure a frightened dog into their patrol car. One officer was so touched by the stray he’d caught, he came back and adopted it. Then there was the night I got a call at about 10 from an EMS unit. Could I take in a batch of kittens? Minutes later, an ambulance roars up to the front of our house, siren bleeping, lights flashing. The neighbors are all at their windows, wondering who’d been hurt. One of the crew, a big guy who’s allergic to cats, gingerly gets out and hands me a box full of newborn, motherless kittens he’s been cradling in his arms. “They gonna be okay?” he asks tenderly, between sneezes.
The growing number of animals in the increasing number of shelters and rescue facilities (the Humane Society of the United States estimates there are as many as eight million animals in shelters) holds a mirror up to our society. The re-flected image is not very flattering. We acquire things and, if our acquisition causes us a problem, we get rid of it—even if it is a living thing. Nationwide, shelters are forced to put down about 14,000 unwanteed animals every day.
There’s an unspoken maxim that hovers over most shelters: “People want what they want and are going to do what they want, no matter what advice you give them.” The maxim plays out in all sorts of ways. Despite the nation’s over-population of dogs and cats, lots of people still refuse to spay and neuter their pets. They come to the shelter to dump the litter (and sometimes the mom, too!), explaining, “We wanted the kids to witness the miracle of birth.” Too bad they didn’t just tell them that animal shelters are full of the miracles of birth.
Other people come in with a fixed idea of the animal they would like to adopt. I can’t blame them; they’re shopping. The problem here is that you’re not shopping for furniture. You are adding to your family. Consider us a dating service; take the time at the shelter to fall in love.
The good news is that a lot of people do. We try hard to match the right animal with the right home. Like many shelters, we ask a lot of questions before we give an animal to anyone. How long each day will the dog be alone? Do you plan to declaw this cat? Do you plan to have this puppy spayed? “You’d think we were adopting a child!” is the kind of response that makes me leery. I’m all that stands between Rover and Fluffy—and another bad home.
Cats and dogs require a certain amount of our time and attention every day if they are to become loveable members of our families. Increasingly, we see people willing to spend money on pet problems but not time. We are currently looking for a home for a darling Old English sheepdog, Chester, whose family, after a couple of years, had found they had “less and less time for him.” Sure, there were some tears shed, but that didn’t stop them from leaving Chester. The dog now comes with a problem—he’s started to nip. Shelters are full of “oops” animals that people decided weren’t such a good idea after all.
During my time at this Westchester shelter, I have done almost every job imaginable. I have cared for orphaned kittens from birth, raised funds, and spent hours on the telephone dispensing information and advice. Blood, vomit, feces, and urine don’t stop me for a second from my appointed rounds anymore.
Despite many foolish mistakes, I can still count on only one hand the number of times that I have been seriously bitten or scratched. Like most shelters, we take in a fair number of abused animals. Blanche, a white boxer, was tied up in her backyard and starved within sight of her owner’s house. Celine, another dog, and Daisy, a gray-and-white cat, came from different homes, but both wore collars so tight that the skin had grown over them. Cherry, a young pit bull, was covered with burns where her people pushed lit cigarettes into her skin, in an effort to turn her into the aggressive fighting dog she would never be. What did I find when I handled these guys? Patience, gratitude and, when their injuries and fear subsided, affection.
Animals come to this municipal pound in one of three ways: the police bring them in as strays; they are tied up or left in a box at the front door; or they are brought in by their owners. Though I think your pet is a member of your family, there are times when a person should be allowed to abandon a member of the family. If a person is there to dump his pet, it’s already over. You can’t try to change his mind. The dog or cat is better off with us at the shelter. We will try hard to get it a life. It’s not my place to berate people and make them feel guilty. That’s what consciences are for.
And, as badly as our dogs and cats need new homes, there are people who should not be allowed to adopt. They might say something in the adoption interview that indicates they would treat Rocket cruelly, like, “Oh, he’s going to live in the basement, so training won’t be an issue,” or “One peep out of him and he’ll never do that again.” Or it may emerge that their landlord doesn’t really allow pets, but they are just going to sneak Trixie into the building. (A lot of animals are evicted from apartments and into shelters.) Or they are too young. Or they want to surprise Mom with a puppy. (We don’t do gifts; a lot of people are not pleased with living gifts.)
Shelters are a great place to experience a healthy shattering of your stereotypes. Income and appearance, for instance, have very little to do with what makes for a good home and heart. I interviewed a very nicely turned out family just the other week who, while they looked over our cats, made it clear that any cat they adopted couldn’t ever scratch their kids, throw up, shed too much, or meow excessively. One of our little females fell in love with them. They liked her, too. But she was black and white and, the mother insisted, her 4-year-old son only wanted an orange cat. We were the third shelter they’d been to. After an hour, they left without a cat. Unsuitable homes come in all income brackets, just as caring ones do.
I’ve also learned that, sometimes, when people and animals come together, miracles happen. These stories usually feature our “tough customers,” the animals that no one wants. They are aggressive or deeply timid or injured or old or deformed. These stories also feature kind-hearted people. Take Crash, the muscular, scary-looking dog who went home with a mother and father and their teenage son. The dog needed some special handling to restore his trust in people; their son needed a focus in his life—a project as big as Crash. That dog and that boy have turned each other’s lives around.
Then there was Hortence, a big, sassy cat who’d as soon nail you with her claws as look at you. She’d been nasty to potential adopters for months. Then, one day, a young couple came into the cat room and suddenly…it was just the three of them in the world. Hortence is now the center of their universe and the perfect hostess at their dinner parties.
These are the animals we care for month after month, in the hope that the perfect person will come along and train them out of their aggression, guide them out of their fears, and soothe them in their old age or infirmity. Guess what? Sometimes they do.
The writer is a Westchester resident who has loved animals since childhood. She adopted her dog from a local shelter.
Shelters and Rescue
Groups in Westchester
(Information about all can be found on www.Petfinder.com.)
Animal shelters that take in abandoned animals and have on-site kennel facilities:
Elmsford Animal Shelter
New Rochelle Humane Society
Pet Adoption League
(affiliated with the Mt. Vernon animal shelter)
SPCA of Westchester
Westchester Shore Humane Society
Yonkers Animal Shelter
Rescue Groups that take in abandoned animals and house them in foster homes:
Rabbit Rescue and Rehabilitation
Tiny Treasures Rescue
Cat Assistance Inc.