Opinion: On the joys of animal sheltering work

In this season of gratitude, I wanted to share my feelings about working for the humane society. I wrote many years ago about the joys of animal sheltering work but it still rings true! I am grateful to everyone who makes the lives of shelter animals brighter.
I purposefully chose to use the word “joys” in connection with animal sheltering work because it is a one-word answer to the question and comment so often directed at animal shelter workers. Kind, compassionate, and well-meaning people who visit our shelter often leave after thanking us for what we do saying, “I could never work here, it’s too sad. How can you stand it?” or “I love animals way too much to ever work here. How do you do it?”
It’s true that it can be overwhelming sometimes to work with what seems like an endless flow of unwanted and homeless animals, and it’s ironic because all shelter workers’ efforts are ultimately directed at putting themselves out of a job. However, that day is still a long time coming and until then here are some of my thoughts on why we work where we do. I hope these reflections will help everyone to see that our shelter (and every animal shelter and rescue group everywhere) is not always a sad place but very, very often an example of human nature at its best.
On an abstract level, I like working in animal shelters. Despite the amount of work it will take to end companion animal overpopulation and make sure animals do not outnumber loving, responsible homes, people are not afraid to donate their time, their skills, their money, and their hearts. They bring us animals, knowing that our shelter is a safe and kind place where animals will be cared for until a loving, responsible and permanent home is found. People come to us for new animal companions, even knowing the “emotional baggage” that can accompany the often traumatized animals who come to us off the streets. People are not afraid to bring their children, either in family groups or school classes, to learn about us and what we do. In short, people are not afraid of this overwhelming problem and so many do so much to help solve it. It amazes me, brings me hope, and yes, is a joy.
On a daily basis, I like working in animal shelters because of the little things I see every day. I see staff members regularly spend their own money to by small treats that will make the lives of our animals more pleasant. I see teenage volunteers giving up whole Saturdays to fold laundry and wash endless piles of dishes. I see weak and hungry kittens sent into foster care come back bright-eyed and healthy. I see scared dogs learning to trust. I see animal control officers working double time to reunite lost animals with out-of-town families. I see children in wheelchairs giggling hysterically at the antics of cats in the cat rooms. I see veterinarians volunteering hours and hours of time to examine and care for homeless animals. I see high school students choosing to fulfill their community service requirements by scrubbing kennels and scooping poop.
I see children who have had birthday parties where the only gift they asked for was donations to the shelter. I see people drive miles out of their way to bring us a cat found in a snow storm. I see adoptions that make old people smile and children gleeful. I see staff wiping away tears as they say farewell to a beloved animal who has finally found a forever home. I see people, clearly grieving their own deceased animals, come in to give us leftover medicine before it expires. I hear guinea pigs squeaking when their favorite volunteer arrives with lettuce and treats.
In short, I see people being kind to animals and animals bringing joy to people; and I sometimes see the answer to the question, “How could you work here?” as “For the privilege of seeing what is possible.”
Jessica Danyow is the executive director of Homeward Bound, Addison County’s Humane Society, in Middlebury.

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