Yesterday was my last day at Women’s Humane Society. I left my position as Canine Behavior Education Coordinator after a year and a half for reasons both personal and professional. In that year and a half, I worked really hard to affect change. I experienced so many emotions. I learned so, so much. I learned about the resilience of animals and people. I learned how to help animals who weren’t seemingly so resilient. I learned that having a work BFF is probably the biggest protector against the unending sadness. I learned that having willing, hard working coworkers who share your righteous indignation over certain things, but push forward nonetheless, are the key to actually seeing the change you hoped for. I learned that there is no substitute for a boss who will allow you to vent, allow you to cry and most importantly- allow you to do the job he hired you for. To hand you the keys and say I trust you, you got this, change some lives.
I also learned about what things are most useful for a shelter. Some of these are actual “things”- like goods. Some are words, some are services. If you are a volunteer, an advocate, a donor or potential donor, know that what you do or say can have an impact held on the animals housed within a shelter’s walls- and that can be good or bad.
Donations of goods: Shelters usually need very typical things like dish detergent and laundry detergent. These on-going expenses add up and nothing warms the heart of a shelter worker like a giant bottle of Tide. Not very glamorous, I know, but very necessary. Used, but clean towels come in very handy for warming up beds and kennels for cats and dogs, especially right after surgery. Your old comforter is not as useful, because dogs can de-stuff them and get blockages if they try to eat them. Bored shelter dogs often look for amusement wherever they can find it.
When donations of soft treats and toys like Kongs showed up, I practically kissed them. Shelter dogs are generally not that interested in Milk Bones (they likely taste just like dry dog food) and I worked hard to help ensure a steady flow of soft goodies for the treat buckets. Thanks to friends all around the country and the power of Facebook, I was usually able to do it. We fed dogs their dinners out of XL and XXL Kongs, so donations of these was like manna from heaven.
Typically, only unopened bags and boxes can be used, so even though it feels good to drop of a mostly unused, but open bag of food, know that we can’t use it.
Cat treats like Temptations and unopened catnip are very useful. Those little balls with bells in them, not so much. Socks stuffed with cotton batting and catnip are a great enrichment toy for shelter cats- they’re soft sided, cheap and easy to make.
WHS has its own page on the Kuranda bed website. Through this page and a generous donation to YPBY, we were able to replace the old plastic platforms that served as beds in every single kennel on the adoptions floor. One of the first things the public notices is how a shelter cares for its animals. Kuranda beds are the shelter standard because they are easy to clean, parts can be replaced, they’re colorful and comfortable. We went with aluminum corners to cut down on chewing, and keep costs lower (rather than the all aluminum beds). Having enough beds for dogs was a huge victory for me because, quite frankly, those platforms made me insane. They were too large, unsightly and likely not very comfortable. People who come to see animals in a shelter are more likely to notice the efforts made to keep them comfortable and happy than they are bits of paint chipped off of a wall.
People are more likely to support a shelter where the mission is visible- so can’t adopt or foster? Donate items that help keep animals happy and healthy while they live in the shelter. Things like DAP spray for bandannas and Feliway diffusers are expensive to maintain, so consider dropping some off if your local shelter utilizes them. Both are crucial components of keeping animals behaviorally healthy. Behaviorally healthy animals are more easily adoptable.
Effective Advocacy: Gone are the days of “Save the sweet baby” and “People suck”. Words matter. Use them carefully. Emotional blackmail is unhealthy and unsustainable. For everyone. Does a dog or cat’s face speak to you? By all means, give him or her a share, but know that saying “Another sweet baby dumped because they are moving!” does little more than make you feel good (at least temporarily) because you feel like you are doing something, does not help the animal in most cases and perpetuates myths about people and shelter animals. In my experience, most animals are not just dumped. Are some? Of course. But I saw more tears and read more sad stories than I can count. The dog surrendered because the owner had MS and poor balance? My heart broke for her and those people. I didn’t judge those people, I wished I could have helped. And I did. By ensuring the dog stayed sane and adoptable while she was sheltered.
Please don’t put down a shelter at the same time you are promoting an animal in their care. Shelters have a bad enough rap without animal advocates calling them hellholes or shitholes or posting pictures or videos of dogs barking, crying, or smearing poop in their kennels. That empty water bucket? Probably gets filled 10 times a day because that cute Husky keeps trying to go swimming in it. The poop on the walls is likely due to kennel stress and not because no one cares or the dog never gets out. Barking is a socially facilitated behavior. One dog barks, the rest are likely to join in. A little understanding of dog behavior can go a long way.
Educate Yourself: Have pre-conceived notions about animal shelters? Think the term ‘no-kill’ automatically means one organization is better than another? Read. From lots of sources. Ask. Think critically. WHS is an open-access shelter. That means we accepted all comers. Sick, dying, behaviorally unsound- all of them. Despite that, we continued to make great strides in how many animals left the building to go on to live new lives. We did that through enrichment, through humane education programs, through recognizing when animals were struggling behaviorally and making adjustments where necessary and by always striving to get better at all of those things. I saw our live release numbers increase monthly during my time there. I am extremely proud of that. The fact that people would not consider donating or adopting from WHS because we are not a no-kill shelter makes me incredibly sad. Because the fact is, animals in all shelters need your support. And all are worthy.
Get the facts about “Pit Bulls”: One of the most common questions I was asked was “Why are there so many pit bulls?” The answer is pretty simple: stigma. There remains a stigma around dogs labeled as pit bulls which makes them harder to adopt out. Restrictions by landlords are often behind those surrenders made due to moving. Homeowners associations and insurance companies don’t always help and people often don’t know about these things until it becomes an issue for them. So yea, you may see more “pit bulls” than other types of dogs, but I’ve seen purebred dogs that I’d never have expected to- from Great Pyrenees to Australian Shepherds to Shiba Inus to English Bulldogs. They go faster and it breaks my heart because that gorgeous, scared blockhead with the endlessly wagging tail waits longer, simply because of the shape of his head.
Also, know that the dogs we are all calling pit bulls are often wearing a label they inherited for reasons that have nothing to do with breed. Pit Bull is a catch-all for dogs of a similar “type”, not a breed. 99.99999% of them have never fought in dog fights, the way the media has presented them to us, and those that have poor dog-dog skills are likely under -socialized, not game.
Know that this is unlikely to change unless people like you and me are better advocates. The dogs are counting on you.
Be a Good Volunteer: Shelters rely on volunteers to help with things like day-to-day tasks such as laundry, dishes and paperwork. They also rely on them for animal care and things like dog walking. It’s so appreciated and so necessary, but know that just because you are volunteering with animals, you can’t always just do or say whatever you want. Just because you do something with your free time doesn’t mean it should be a free-for-all. If you volunteered for the Girl Scouts or Big Brothers/Big Sisters, you wouldn’t expect to do anything other than the duties you were assigned. Why it’s different in an animal shelter is beyond me. Have ideas? Pitch them, but know employees have probably thought of them and found them cost-prohibitive to carry out or that the man-power simply doesn’t exist. Have the initiative to carry something out? Now we’re talking. Offer to head up a fundraiser, lead adoption events, be the lead for a shelter program. But, promise yourself you will only color inside the lines. And know that the reason you are asked to do that is because there can be dire consequences for animals if you go rogue. I’ve been there. Have concerns? Talk to an employee, not all of Facebook.
Animal sheltering is an emotional business. It never ends. The way each of us chooses to engage in it has direct impact on the lives of animals every single day. Support a shelter. It’s the best way to support the animals they are charged with caring for.