STORIES FROM A VOLUNTEER: The First Really Hard Day

All you have to do is read my blog to know how much James and I love our furbabies.  And if you read PB&C with any frequency, you know I’m a sucker for a hard case or a lost soul.  I want to help them all– all of the dogs that have been abandoned or hurt or let down.  I wish we could do more, but times and resources are an issue (and I loathe the “adultness” of that comment, but it’s the truth).  In my dream world, we’d have a gazillion acres and rescue all of the dogs and let them romp and play and train and trust.    One day.

One of our dear friends, and early champion of our little blog, has recently started volunteering at a local animal rescue group.  Every day, I look forward to her updates on adoptables, recommendations for the best galoshes for kennel-wear, and asks for sheets/towels/treats/etc.  Her experience has been delightful to follow and her enthusiasm is contagious.  Recently, the realities of animal rescue presented themselves to her…. But I’ll let her explain them to you…


Volunteering at a shelter is hard. It’s extremely rewarding and beautiful work on some days; it is utterly heartbreaking on others. I have been volunteering with a local organization for the last two months and today was my first Really Hard Day. The timing makes sense because I’ve now been at the shelter long enough to form attachments to animals and though I knew this would happen, I wasn’t prepared for one of my favorite friends to not have a happy ending at a forever home. And I think it could have been avoided in many ways.

I should start by saying that the shelter I work with is a wonderful service to the community and to the animals who are brought in. Each animal inhabitant is treated with the utmost care and love – from snake to bunny; from cat to dog. I have witnessed nothing but compassion from staff and volunteers towards even the most difficult of animals to come through the doors. The dangerous dog cases often get the best toys and blankets; dogs needing behavior adjustments are rehabbed by patient, dedicated staff; and very sick, hurt animals get the medical attention they desperately require to give them a solid chance at a happy, new life. Most of that is behind-the-scenes work that the public never sees but absolutely benefits from. The shelter also works with a large network of rescue organizations and tries to free up as many kennels as possible for the harder-to-place, oft-maligned bully breeds. It is a good last-resort for our furry friends who do not have anywhere else to go and I passionately believe in the work that is being done there; I am so grateful this service exists.

But passion and belief do not make it any easier when hard decisions need to be made and shelters, as good a service as they provide, are no long-term place for any animal. Anyone working in a shelter would tell you that.

When I walk into the adoptions kennel on most days, the barks start slowly and then ramp up as I make my way down the aisle. Most of the dogs jump at the cage doors asking for attention. Sometimes they get distracted by kennel-neighbors and start jumping and barking at each other through the walls and bars that separate them. Despite daily cleanings, the kennel reeks of animal and animal waste and the din can be deafening; it’s an overwhelming sensory experience as a human. Note that a dog’s sense of smell can be up to 10,000,000 times greater than that of a person (depending on the breed) and they can hear 4x the distance of the average human and much higher pitches, too. So a kennel packed with pups all emitting their own natural odors, marking their territories, and loudly barking is like living in a group house with no doors and 50 non-showering roommates who each blast their own music (in an attempt to drown out the other roommates’ music) and everyone refuses to take out the trash. Those conditions would turn me into a psychopath and it’s enough to turn any sweet-faced love-nugget from friendly and adoptable to dangerously stressed-out.

That’s what happened to my buddy – lick-happy, high-energy, adorably-goofy, just-out-of-puppyhood and too-big-to-be-a-lap-dog-but-still-trying – he went from being adoptable to not in the span of a week after a little over two months at the shelter. The changes had to have started subtly but it was all of the sudden that I noticed his stress. He’d always been jumpy in his kennel, but now he was jumping higher and with more frequency (on a troubled leg, none-the-less); he’d always barked at dogs, but now he had interest in snapping at them through the bars of their cages as he strained on his leash when we walked by. And the saddest change to me, he had an inability to calm down.

The last time I spent an afternoon with him, after running around outside we went to a private room for some quiet couch-time. He laid some big, wet, pittie kisses on my face; he did his crazy-endearing too-big-to-be-a-lap-dog-but-still-trying moves, even lying next to me at one point; but he never settled down. My poor, sweet boy panted the whole thirty minutes of quiet time; his breathing never slowed, his eyes were wild, and he could not stay still for more than a minute at a time. He was constantly over-stimulated even in a calm, low-distraction area. Noticing these changes in his behavior, I immediately asked for him to be put on the urgently-needs-a-foster list – it turns out he was already on it.

Fast forward two days and my favorite fur-dude is too unpredictable to be considered adoptable or able to be fostered.

On a day I wasn’t there, potential adopters wanted to see him and when off his leash in the fenced-in yard, my guy was jumping up to shoulder height and mouthing at peoples’ faces in a concerning way.  It was suspected he was now redirecting his stress into aggression towards people.  The next time I came in, I was told he would be re-doing part of his behavioral assessment. The test was administered by loving care-givers who are always on the side of rooting for the underdog and they let me sit in on it; after all was said and done, with heavy heart I have to agree that my best buddy is not predictably safe. The loud noises and millions of smells and carousel of people coming and going during his two month stay have made him a very unhappy puppy.

I said goodbye to him today, with the thought that it could be the last time that I see my favorite friend. And after telling him I loved him and feeding him some treats through his wire door – all I could say was “I’m sorry” over and over as I tried to swallow tears and sobs.

Why am I sorry? Because, as I said earlier, I think this could have been prevented. How? Here are the things that could have been done to keep my bud out of his current predicament and things that anyone can do to help shelters and shelter animals:

  • Spay and neuter: For the love of Pete – spay and neuter your animals. There are so many pets who end up at the shelter because they are surrendered by people who say they are “unwanted” or they are picked up as wandering strays. Do not allow for the creation of more unwanted pets; do not allow the breeding epidemic to continue.  Get all of your animals fixed. **If you have a pet, this is the easiest way to contribute to lowering the number of animals in a shelter at any given time.**

 

  • Foster: If you have the ability to foster animals for a shelter – DO IT! Shelters are in dire need of individuals who have the ability to provide loving, temporary asylum to all creatures great and small but especially cats and dogs. Shelters are unforgiving on the senses and if you can provide a quiet, safe place for an animal until a permanent owner comes along, you will absolutely be saving at least one life. If more people were fostering, my furry friend could have been out of the shelter before reaching his breaking point – he would have been an amazing buddy for someone.

 

  • ADOPT! ADOPT! ADOPT!: Don’t shop for your next pet – instead, please go to your local shelter and give a chance to an animal who through no fault of his/her own has fallen on hard times. Shelters have so many phenomenal companion animals who are waiting to be adopted and brought into a loving home – so if you have a loving home, open it up. If more people adopted from local shelters, my love-nugget could have gone home when he was still healthy.

 

  • Responsible Ownership and Honoring the Promise:  When you become an animal guardian, you make a promise to care for your pet the best way you can for its entire life.  Do everything you can to honor that promise – especially when things get tough.  Behavior issues? Consult a trainer, read articles or books on the issue, and always talk to your vet because it could be medical.  Almost everything is fixable with dedication and the right solution – you owe it to yourself and your pet to put the time and effort into making things work. Taking your animal to a shelter is not a solution – it’s jumping ship and abandonment; it’s going back on your promise. Sometimes things happen that are out of your control – health fails or finances get out of whack – but if you have exhausted all options and can no longer take care of your pet, it is the job of a responsible owner to work personal networks to find a happy, healthy replacement home and to keep your animal out of the shelter. If my favorite fur-dude’s first owners had been responsible, none of this would have ever happened.

I am sorry – so very, very sorry – for the circumstances that landed my buddy in the shelter and for the circumstances that kept him there longer than what he was able to mentally handle. I am sorry that somewhere down the line, people failed him miserably and now he will not know the love of a responsible owner and the stability of a happy home. I’m sorry that I did not recognize that he was taking a turn for the worse until it was too late. I’m sorry that I did not step in to offer to foster until it was too late.

I am happy that I gave him love and attention when I could. I am happy that he has been living somewhere that has provided him with needed medical treatment, food, treats and belly scratches for the last two months. I am happy that I know he will be lovingly attended to and treated with care and respect for the entirety of the time he has left.

But what I am most painfully sorry about is that this will not be the last Really Hard Day. People will continue to bring their animals into the shelter for reasons beyond my comprehension and will continue to let them loose on the street or leave them behind when they move. This will not be the last time that I have a favorite friend who does not get to go to a forever home; I am not naive enough to think that it will not happen again and again and again and again and that it will not be this painful each time – because it will be.

As much as that thought makes me sick to my stomach and want to head for the hills instead of reporting for duty, it’s also what keeps me coming back. I want to do as much good for the animals as I can while they are there. I want to advocate for them and help behaviorally assess them and be able to flag them for urgent foster when I notice even the smallest in changes. I want to help keep as many animals as sane as they can possibly be in an unnaturally chaotic environment. I want to work with a team of dedicated, loving animal-care professionals and learn more about what I can do to help. And more than anything, I want to send all of the animals – from snakes to bunnies, from cats to dogs – to happy homes with responsible owners.

It’s on this first Really Hard Day that I need to remind myself that it has to be all about the Really Big Picture.

Dedicated to my first favorite boy FM

 

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4 thoughts on “STORIES FROM A VOLUNTEER: The First Really Hard Day

  1. guys..may your friend and everyone involved in shelter, rescue, foster, veterinary health care….etc…be blessed ten fold as she is right. what goes on behind the scenes is something MANY of us could not deal with on a day to day basis; it takes a toll emotionally, spiritually, mentality and physically and I’ve seen even the most hardened souls break down and fall to pieces when something has happened to an animal they’ve grown close too….applause to your friend for sticking with this even after that …really hard day…. and may she be rewarded with a multitude of ……really good days ♥

  2. Hard days are horrible, but the really nice ones are worth it! Steady on, guardians, fosters, everyone who dares to help our animal friends! My cats either came from loving homes or from shelters. brandi and Quinn were from shelters. The others came from responsible pet owners who made sure their “littles” went to loving homes. And their “biggies” were fixed.
    If you read Glogirly, she often talks about Feline Rescue of St. Paul. Wonder where Quinn found me? Yup. Feline Rescue. They are an absolutely awesome place!

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