Volunteering with the voiceless

When I tell people I volunteer at an animal shelter, more often than not the response is “Oh gosh, I could never do that, it would be too sad.”

I understand the gut reaction, but that’s never been my experience in my 13 years as a dog walker, cat foster and bunny wrangler.

In 2010, as a preteen Girl Scout, I visited Animal Friends, an animal shelter in Ohio Township, as part of a field trip to learn about humane welfare. The shelter staff told me I could begin volunteering as young as 13, and to no one’s surprise, I began counting down the days to my 13th birthday when I could sign up. From a young age, I’ve loved being around animals, so this was a natural step for me. Ever since then, I’ve been an active volunteer at the shelter, spending about 800 hours doing everything from animal handling to fundraising to fostering.

Volunteering as a teen, in full Aeropostale style (very 2012)

Over the years I’ve become particularly attached to certain animals. I remember the first cat I fostered—his name was Snowball, but I called him Pusheen since he looked like the cartoon cat—and how he wouldn’t come out from under my bed for a month. He was experiencing shelter stress, which basically meant he was shutting down. In the shelter he refused to eat, play or come out of his cage and wanted nothing to do with people. It took months of patience and giving him space to relax and finally he came out of his shell. Before fostering him, he was up for adoption for a year without any applications. After several months at home with me, the shelter said he was ready to come back and I grudgingly returned him, worried that he’d be trapped in a cage for the foreseeable future. Luckily my fears were unfounded. He was adopted, now that he was showing his true personality.

Pusheen (not Snowball) was the first animal I developed a special interest in, but he certainly wasn’t the last. As I began working with all species at the shelter and getting additional training to handle animals with trickier behavioral issues or special needs, I’ve learned so much about animal welfare and the importance of rescuing.

I often work with animals that are seriously ill, beaten, abandoned or have lived chained in the backyard. Some of the gentlest dogs have been the ones from dog fighting cases. Many of the sweetest cats take the longest to rehabilitate because they lived in a hoarding house. So yes, working in a shelter is undoubtedly sad at times, but it’s worth it to help these animals get their second, third, sometimes even fourth chance at a loving and safe home. I’m grateful that I get to help them on their journey from a harsh and unfair past to a bright future.

Iris, one of the dogs that was the hardest for me to not adopt over the years, came to the shelter as part of a humane investigation and spent months waiting for a home until her court case concluded. After that, it wasn’t long until she was adopted.

Unsurprisingly, I hope more people will rescue from shelters. According to national estimates from the ASPCA, each year 6.3 million animals enter shelters, and 920,000 shelter animals are euthanized. These numbers are lower than previous years but show the continued magnitude of animal homelessness. Each year, about 4.1 million animals are adopted from shelters. That still leaves more than 2 million unadopted animals in shelters, which just compounds over time.

Hanging out in the cat condos

One might look at those figures and assume there must be too many animals and not enough people to adopt. However, if you look at household pet statistics, you’ll find that only 23 percent of dog owners and 31 percent of cat owners adopted from a shelter. Imagine the difference it would make for shelter animals if even half of the people who buy from breeders would adopt instead.

Adoption rates from shelters are still surprisingly low

I’d encourage anyone with even a slight interest in helping animals to try volunteering. There are so many ways to do so. Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh has two locations (North Side and East End) for volunteering with domestic animals and a wildlife rescue center in Verona. The other major shelter nearby is Animal Friends in Ohio Township. Although, you don’t need to leave Mt. Lebanon to get involved in animal welfare. There are many local rescue groups without a physical shelter location that rely on volunteers to house animals while they wait to be adopted. (Be warned, you might end up “foster failing” like I did with my cat, Pinto. It happens when you get too attached to a foster pet and feel like you need to adopt them yourself.) I recommend Googling “foster groups near me” and you’ll find plenty of options. Fostering is also awesome for people who can’t commit to adopting a pet but would like to have a four-legged companion temporarily. Many rescue organizations will cover the costs of food, supplies and other care. Offering your time and resources to an animal in need, whether at a shelter or in your home, can be the difference between them making it to their ‘forever home’ or not. If I haven’t sold you on volunteering and adopting yet, maybe the collection of cute faces below will do the trick.

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