Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
13 October 1999 Issue

By Michelle A. Rivera, [email protected]

While visiting "The Pelican Man Wild Bird Sanctuary" in the Tampa/St. Pete area last month, I was thrilled to see a plaque proclaiming that the founder of this unique bird sanctuary had been awarded a "Point of Light" from former president George W. Bush. This meant that it wasn't just those volunteering for human causes that were recognized, but that those in service to animals were finally getting the recognition they so richly deserve.

But we know that "animal" people don't volunteer for recognition, prizes or other "stuff"; we do it for the love of the animals. If you have decided to volunteer at your local animal shelter or county facility, or if you are looking for avenues for volunteering for the good of the animals, then take heart, this article is for you!

First, there are many ways in which you can use your talents for the good of the animals. Some of the more common ways, of course, are simply showing up at your local shelter and/or county facility and volunteering to walk a dog or two, get him/her out of the cage for a little while. I promise you, the look in the eyes of a captive dog when you approach with a lead is a very rewarding experience! Not so much a dog person? Cats always love grooming and brushing and playing with catnip toys. Some shelters have initiated "Big Brother" programs where you can take a dog or cat just for the day, and bring him back before close of business. This is a great outlet for dogs in cages..... take her for a run on the beach or a session of playing ball in a fenced park. These programs work wonders for getting these animals adopted as well. More people will get to see them, and they will be at their best when at play. Activity will also tire dogs out somewhat, so that they don't act quite so anxious when people come to visit the shelter.

You may decide to become a full-time volunteer, coming in at pre-set hours and taking on specific responsibilities. Here are some important points to remember if you are to work as an animal shelter or foster program volunteer.

* Anyone who has ever had to make decisions for the lives of animals knows that this process is a deeply emotional one. Accept this as a fact and remember it when offering your opinions. Do not engage in arguments over policy with the workers. Most often, these policies are born of many years of experience.

* Each shelter has its' own "personality". Keep in mind that all animal shelters have the best intentions of the animals in mind, but still, sometimes euthanasia is a necessary option.

* If a member of the public poses a question to which you have no answer, don't guess. Many volunteers, trying to be helpful, guess at answers, which could lead to misinformation and ensuing public relations nightmares. Always ask a staff member if you don't know an answer.

* Do the best you can and try to enjoy your time with the animals. Burn out is as much a problem with volunteers as it is with paid staff. Try not to engage in or encourage gossip about other volunteers, staff or directors, because if you cause dissension among the ranks, you may very well be asked to leave!

* ..... Another note on volunteering within a shelter organization: There are always things to do. If you see a crate that has urine in it, or a dog that needs to be walked, a water bowl that needs to be filled, or a litter box that needs to be cleaned, pitch in and do it! Don't walk over to a staff member and point it out, expecting them to drop everything and take care of it. Just do it! Many times, volunteers will complain to the management, the public or even the media! This could result in lost income for the shelter from people who won't donate now because of what a volunteer has said! This hurts the animals directly and does nothing for staff morale. Resist the urge to complain about minor things left undone, just do them. Of course, if you witness overt signs of animal abuse, hitting a dog or something of that nature, be sure to speak up, but do so within the organization first.

* One last thing, remember that sometimes, the "processing" of an animal just coming into a shelter can look very cruel and punishing. A frightened animal is coming into a strange place, being handled by another species (humans), where the smell of death and illness is heavy in the air. They are restrained, poked with needles and fecal sticks, and they are prodded as shelter workers search for spay scars or intact testicles. This is a difficult thing to watch for a novice shelter worker or volunteer. The thing is, getting an idea of the general health of the animal is a very necessary precaution not only for the incoming animal, but for the resident animals, the staff and volunteers as well. It isn't a pretty sight, so if you aren't ready for it, perhaps you can find another area in which to serve.

* If you can't bear to work 'hands-on" with the shelter animals, remember that there are always other functions: answering lost and found calls, stuffing envelopes, offering to work at a community event handing out information and other administrative or committee duties. Foster-care centered rescue groups take animals to places like PetsMart and other outlets for showing animals looking for permanent homes. They are always looking for volunteers to work a Saturday or Sunday accepting applications for homeless animals. These groups frequently have fund-raisers, garage sales and other events the success of which relies on volunteers.

* Also, look into wildlife rescue facilities, they usually have volunteer-run gift shops and thrift stores. Wildlife hospital facilities have animals in rehabilitation and not "looking for homes" as the shelter animals are. You won't be tempted to "take them all home" or feel so sorry for them when you leave.

If you are allergic to animals, as I am, you can still help them by getting on all the action alert lists that you can and writing, writing, writing letters. Letter-writing campaigns are the single most effective method of getting activists from around the country and around the world to concentrate on the current issues at hand. Not so long ago, Animal Rights Online asked that you write to Subway thanking them for their veggie delite subs; or to Plow and Hearth, thanking them for stopping the manufacturing of a shockingly cruel device designed to kill mice. Since websites and e-mail addresses are almost always included in these calls to action, one only needs to take a minute or two to get the letter out. In writing letters, be sure to keep your letters short, polite and right to the point. Something as simple as "Dear Senator, please vote yes on bill xyz, the bill to stop animal fur trade, thank you, signed so and so". You see, the politicians and big-shot CEO's don't really read this mail, their administrative support personnel does, and they simply report what the main point of the letters are anyway. So you may as well keep it simple. Or consider attending an animal-rights demonstration in your area. Not the "demonstrator type"? So write a letter of support for the demonstrators to the editor of the local paper. Every little voice for the animals makes a difference.

Remember that your motives are for the animals. So many volunteers who work fund-raising functions such as Dog Washes or Dog Walks expect free t-shirts, free lunch tickets and more. While these are nice little incentives, remember that the money spent on these niceties is money taken away from the animals. Do it for the animals, not the "stuff". Letters or certificates of appreciation; or your name mentioned in a newsletter is never too much to ask however, because you can and should list your experience on your resume. Volunteer activities count when listing employment skills!

So get started today! Call your local advocates and get involved. Make a difference for the animals who need your voice and your talents, as only you can give!

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