I work in an animal shelter. An open access animal shelter. I see a lot of stuff. Lots of stuff I’d rather not see and even more stuff that makes me proud of where I work, the people I work with, the volunteers who show up daily, and the work we do. I love my job.
I refuse to think people suck. Not because I live in some la-la fantasy world, but because it doesn’t support my end goals. My end goals are simple: save as many lives as possible, make those lives as good as possible and be able to stay in the game. Because I love my job.
I love dogs. Thinking that the people who surrender them suck does not support my goals. In fact, thinking about them does the opposite: it puts me in a place of sadness and anger, which for me can lead to depression. Depression does nothing for me other than make me feel helpless. I refuse to feel helpless. Or hopeless. I can feel sad for a while, but I need to move on from there and focus my attention on the dog. That’s pretty crucial. Walking around thinking people suck takes up brain space and it takes up heart space. Space I’d rather give to the dog. Space I’d rather use for a better future for that dog. And you know what? Dogs aren’t thinking about the past, or even the future. They’re focused on what’s happening now. That’s my job: to help the now be as comfortable as possible. Are dogs sad and confused and sometimes depressed? Yes. But I can help with that. My coworkers can help with that. Volunteers can help with that. And we do. To some pretty fantastic outcomes for dogs. Wow.
Do I have moments of gut-wrenching sadness? Head-exploding anger? Yes. Of course I do. But I don’t let myself stay there. I do that for me, I do that for the dogs, I do that for the people who give up on them and for the people who step up for them. I don’t always do it perfectly and I sometimes fail, but I want to stay in this industry. I want to help dogs. I want to help people. Thinking people suck completely defeats that purpose.
Thinking people suck also puts us in an “Us vs. Them” position. Based on what we see in politics, I think we can all agree that this is not a favorable condition in which to get stuff done. If anything, it gets us focused on how different we are, rather than what we all have in common. The truth is, most people are doing the best they can. It may not be your best or my best, but that part isn’t up to us. What is up to us, to a large extent, is what comes next. I don’t add enrichment to the lives of shelter dogs to spite the people who surrendered them, I do it to help the dog. This doesn’t make me better than anyone else, but it does make me feel better about me. And at the end of the day, I have to feel good about what I have done. Condemning someone else for what they have (or haven’t) done doesn’t help. Helping helps. And so I try my very best to help.
Having a tender spot for animals is something all of us who advocate (albeit in different ways, perhaps) on their behalf have in common. The fire that fuels us may be different. The fire in me works towards a better outcome for the dog in front of me. That fire is dampened by the “people suck” rhetoric. It is fueled by action, not talk. It’s fueled by the kennel attendant willing to go to the mat for an extremely scared dog. It’s fueled by the rescue partner who takes the elderly dog and hugs us and thanks us for reaching out. It’s fueled by coworkers who rally around and accept every single dog I bring into our office to let decompress and relax. It’s fueled by the volunteer who says that even though he could pick the dog up to get her in and out of the car, he’d rather teach her to feel safe walking up and down a ramp. It’s fueled by coworkers who say treat buckets on the kennel doors make a huge difference in the dogs behavior. It’s fueled by the coworker who gives extra blankets to dogs. It’s fueled by the dog who was growling at the back of the kennel, but is now wagging his tail at the front thanks to kindness and compassion. It’s fueled by volunteers who show up and get every dog out regardless of the weather. It’s fueled by my boss who allows me to implement things like enrichment, training and education. It’s fueled by little kids who “ooh, awwww” when I bring a dog into an educational presentation. It’s fueled by doing, not by talking.
But, mostly it’s fueled by dogs. By dogs who try their very best to trust and to love. By dogs who don’t hold it against the people who gave them up and instead wag their tail, accept a treat, give kisses, lean in for petting, make new friends and by and large, learn to be happy despite their current circumstances. Dogs are my model for living. And loving dogs does not have to mean hating people. At least not for me.
Hating people does not make for better animal advocacy, advocating for dogs does. In my experience, and not just in working with and for animals, negative thoughts eventually do me in. They chip away at my soul. They steal my thunder. At my age, I’ve decided that I get to choose how I feel, and I won’t give that power up to anyone else. That’s been hard fought for. And I’m not giving it up easily.
Animal advocacy is a marathon, not a sprint. For me, thinking that people suck does not get me closer to the finish line. Focusing on what a dog has been through doesn’t get me closer. Focusing on what can be done for that dog does. Do I sometimes look at a dog and think “Who could give you up?” Sure. But, I’ve tried to change my thoughts to “What could cause someone to feel like they had to give you up?” And then recognize that I may never know, that what’s said on the surrender sheet is usually a pithy write-up of circumstances that I can’t possibly understand. What I can understand is that illness, death, loss of a job, loss of housing, lack of understanding of animal behavior or money problems can happen to anyone. I understand those things because all of them have happened to me. While I have never had to give up an animal because of them, I know all too well what the insecurity of those things feels like.
Maybe you are thinking I give people too much credit. That’s okay. I probably would have in the past, too. But, what I have found and believe in my heart of hearts to be true is that I am not here to condemn. I am not here to hate. And I can not allow myself to feel those things. There’s too much work to do. And the dogs need us.