by Judy Prisoc
It is something I
have intended to do for years. So why did it take me so long to
actually become a volunteer for an animal shelter? When the topic was
raised over dinner, my husband always had a ready answer: "We are
the animal shelter." He had a point. I attract homeless cats and dogs.
The most recent addition is fondly named Max (short for Maximum Number
I could argue that
I don't have enough time (who does?) or that I am too tender hearted
and could not endure the prospect of becoming attached to a dog or cat
who had to be put to death because time had run out. There were so many
reasons why I could not become a volunteer. Yet somehow here I am, a
regular volunteer at C.A.R.E. in Evanston. As I look back over my past
few months as a volunteer, I realize that I am the one who has
benefited from the experience - far more than I could have imagined.
As is with many
important discoveries in life, my job at C.A.R.E. snuck up on me. I did
not wake up one day and say "Today I will become a volunteer," instead
I took a more circuitous route.
When Max developed
a minor bladder infection, I decided to switch him to food that was
designed to prevent such problems. As a result, I was left with a huge
bag of cat food to dispose of. It sounded like a good idea to donate it
to C.A.R.E. When I arrived at the Shelter with my bag of cat food, a
savvy volunteer thanked me with a smile and handed me a volunteer form
to fill out. I was pleased to see the tiny waiting room crowded with
people seeking companion animals.
The next day I got
a call from Beverly. She made me feel comfortable immediately. Her
approach was straightforward, upbeat and flexible. She told me about
the amazing 90% adoption rate for dogs and explained that there was a
tremendous need right now for volunteers to help care for dogs. There
also happened to be an introductory training session that evening.
Beverly was an
excellent teacher. Through gentle persistence, hands on practice,
repetition and the encouragement of teamwork she walked four
prospective volunteers through a typical shift. At first it is shocking
to see dogs in barren concrete and chain link cages. It is the rough
equivalent of a dog prison, only all the inmates are innocent. After a
while you realize that the dogs learn to accept this as home and look
forward to their daily contact with people when they can go for a walk
or on quiet days even play ball.
My first night on
the job I wondered, "what sort of person volunteers at the local animal
designers, teachers and doctors volunteer. Young people studying to be
veterinarians, retired people, high school students and college
students volunteer. Photographers, journalists and artists volunteer.
People who don't have room in their apartment for a dog volunteer so
that they can have the pleasure of walking and playing with dogs.
Volunteers tend to be tolerant people with a good sense of humor. I
know because on my first night I tested everyone's patience. While the
young men on my shift rinsed each cage with a deft sweeping motion, I
always managed to douse someone inadvertently with the high pressure
water sprayers. Fortunately even the dogs were patient that night. None
of them bolted out of the cage when I forgot to brace the gate with my
knee. That huge (but gentle) Rottweiler mix did not wander too far when
I forgot to latch his cage. There were so many things to remember! I
was gently reminded to wait ten minutes before rinsing cages and to
place squeegees upright to avoid contamination. Fortunately all those
details that seem hard to remember are familiar habits by the second or
third time out. At the end of my shift and on subsequent nights there
was always someone who made it a special point to say "Thank you."
night at the Shelter is different, there is a basic routine. When you
arrive, there are anywhere from seven to twelve dogs waiting to be fed
and walked. After an entire day of sensory deprivation, most of the
dogs are ecstatic to see you and have come up with a variety of
strategies for gaining your attention. Some bark hysterically and jump
against the wire. Others put on a big grin and poke their noses through
the holes in the chain link, wagging their tails and flirting
shamelessly. If someone has been kind enough to put a ball in the cage,
many dogs will pick it up and stand hopefully waiting to play. It is
wonderful to be the object of such adoration. It is tremendously
rewarding to observe the obvious pleasure each dog displays in response
to a pat on the head and a short walk in the open air. Some dogs roll
in the grass or pick up a stick in their mouths to carry. Others just
shiver with excitement and go out of their way to lick your face - and
if they can't reach your face they lick your fingers or ankles.
Some dogs are very
depressed when they arrive at the Shelter and huddle silently in the
farthest corner of their cage. These can be among the most rewarding
cases because they respond quickly to patience and kindness. Within a
week these forlorn creatures are eager for their walk or game of
The purebred dogs
are the first to find homes. (It is remarkable how many valuable,
purebred animals end up abandoned). The friendly, enthusiastic dogs are
chosen next. They know how to flatter prospective owners and get along
with children and cats. Although it is difficult when one of your
favorite dogs finds a home because you know you will miss him, I was
delighted discover that people often bring their dogs back to the
Shelter to visit. After working and playing with a special dog it is a
unique thrill to see her again during such visits.
Most animals who
end up in a Shelter are not so lucky. While the typical humane society
finds it necessary to euthanize 90% of the animals received, C.A.R.E.
is able to find homes for the majority of dogs and cats who arrive
here. As a result, C.A.R.E. is able to rescue many cats and dogs who
would have otherwise been put to death. Because of careful screening,
most of these animals find an appropriate home. There are few things
more rewarding than seeing a family brimming with excitement over their
new pet, especially if it is an animal you have come to know and love
and it seems like the perfect match.
In spite of all
the happy stories that emerge from C.A.R.E., it is hard to forget that
if it wasn't for human carelessness and cruelty, the shelter wouldn't
need to exist. If everyone had their pet neutered, there wouldn't be so
many unwanted kittens and puppies. If everyone had their pet
inoculated, it would not have to be put to sleep after contracting an
easily preventable disease. If everyone put tags on their dog, we could
locate the owner. There are so many situations where an animal is
neglected or abused that you might think that this type of work would
be depressing. In fact, it is quite the opposite. When you see a
starving, flea infested kitten who arrives at the shelter terrified and
shivering you also see a squadron of people mobilized to help her.
Within a week that kitten will become a purring embodiment of love
waiting to curl up in someone's lap. It is amazing how resilient
animals are. I am constantly astonished and delighted at the
transformations that occur every week at C.A.R.E.
So now I am one of
the regular volunteers. Even though we have a core group of dedicated
people, we always need more. If you are reading this now, I encourage
you to give your local Shelter a call.
If you decide to
join us, you will meet some of the nicest people in the world. You will
also get a sense of satisfaction and renewal that only comes from
knowing that you have made a difference in the lives of so many animals
and the people who love them.
At the end of my
shift as I make my last round to be sure the door is locked and
everybody has water I wave good-bye to one of the new volunteers and
hasten to add "Thank You!"
information on volunteering for C.A.R.E., call (847)705-2653 or download the
volunteer application to start the process.