April 24-30, 2022 is National Volunteer Week!
I would like to devote this week to animal shelter volunteers. As an overview, volunteers provide assistance in cleaning, feeding, walking, and providing enrichment for the animals. Such personal interaction and socialization of an animal improves its adoptability. The volunteers who know the idiosyncrasies of each animal then relay that information to other volunteers who create social media posts, stage photo sessions, edit video sessions and publish that information in hopes of finding the perfect forever family.
Next, another group of volunteers work the ‘phone lines,’ networking with rescues across the country, some of whom specialize in particular breeds, medical conditions, or behavioral traits. They field responses from potential fosters and rescues and must determine within minutes whether the applicants are legitimate or trying to procure animals for ill purposes. They scour the internet for charitable tax information, reviews, social media presence, any insight regarding an organization’s legitimacy and stability before releasing a pet to their care. Rescues themselves, have their own network of fosters, each thoroughly vetted via veterinarian records and verified references. Without fosters, the cost of care is prohibitive to these non-profits.
Once a rescue is identified and foster found, the next challenge is getting that animal from the shelter to the foster, before it is euthanized. Oh! I forgot to mention there are so many animals in the shelter, volunteers must prioritize the animals at highest risk, the ones scheduled for euthanasia. With hundreds of new animals arriving at the shelter every single day, shelter staff have the dreaded task of giving the death sentence to those animals considered least adoptable due to behavioral issues, health, age, or length of stay at the shelter. It truly is a matter of life and death for volunteers to find a solution for each of these pets before a ‘certain hour’. My own foster fail, Marcus, was on the euthanasia list because he was so terrified to the point he wouldn’t walk.
But look at Marcus now! Turns out he is actually a chihuahua mix with over a dozen other breeds mixed in, a true Texas Mix!
Next come the transport volunteers who donate their time and mileage to deliver a dog from the shelter to their new residence. We call these “Freedom Rides.” Drivers, not professional photographers, take the freedom ride photos and relay them back to the social media volunteers for updating the posts. Then come the pledge chat volunteers who notify the people who have pledged money to save specific pets, give them the contact information for the responsible rescue and all the necessary payment information to honor their pledge.
WHEW! It is a lot of work! It truly takes a village of volunteers, a lot of time and money to save one dog, or cat but statistics prove volunteers are making a significant difference. According to research by the Best Friends Society, animal shelter euthanasias decreased from 17 million in 1984 to 347,000 in 2020. That is amazing progress in the right direction! Progress only made possible by the efforts of so many volunteers.
However, such efforts are not a good long-term solution. Volunteers are exhausted. Rescues are stretched thin. The stress of minute-to-minute, life-or-death situations takes a psychological and physical toll on volunteers who have looked into the eyes of vulnerable animals, worked frantically to save them, then had the experience of failing in their mission. To lose one is like losing a dear friend. Compassion fatigue is overwhelming. Adding insult to injury are the internet trolls spewing vitriol on social media outlets, cursing and name-calling volunteers as “murderers,” “killers,” “heartless,” etc.
If this has been you, keep in mind, the only reason you are able to see these disturbing images and hear of these euthanasias in the first place, is because the shelter has allowed volunteers to provide such transparency. In Houston, the shelters receiving the majority of the complaints have over a 90% live-release record. That means 9 out of 10 animals that enter the shelter, leave alive. What you aren’t seeing is the many other counties that don’t have the funding of the 4th largest city in the country. Most counties have minimal to no facilities for holding animals, therefore if the owner does not retrieve their animal, they have no choice but euthanasia. Smaller counties also do not have the large populations of people from which to draw volunteers. So, the next time you want to hurl insults at a volunteer, bite your tongue and thank them instead. If you truly want to yell at someone, contact your legislators. We need more stringent legislation against animal cruelty, we need to prohibit inhumane methods of euthanasia, we need more low cost spay and neuter options, we need more public education on humane treatment of animals, we need to decrease the stray population, not punish those who are doing their best to empty the shelters.
Of course, this is only half the journey to rescuing an animal. The rest of the journey involves foster care, providing medical care or behavioral training, basically teaching the animal to be a good family member, then finding its perfect forever family, preferably in a state where pets are not as abundant and transporting said pet to their new home. That story will have to wait for another day because right now, I’ve got animals that need me.
*Photos are my own, except for the shelter card for my adoptee, Marcus.