There is nothing glamorous about volunteering at an animal shelter. I feel the need to stress this because the job often gets glamorized, causing volunteers to resign after only a few shifts. I believe that these short-lived volunteers have the best of intentions. They are big-hearted animal lovers with some extra time on their hands, looking to give to a worthy cause. It’s just common sense for an animal lover to volunteer with a shelter, right? Not always. I’ve discovered that there is a vast difference between the dream and reality.
New volunteers often envision their shifts as play dates. They believe they’ll show up and be greeted by a swarm of happy cats who are eager to shower them in purrs and cuddles. I know this to be true because I had the same misconceptions. In fact, during my honeymoon phase as a shelter volunteer, I told my sister-in-law that I wanted to “lay on the floor and let the kitties wash over me like a wave.”
As a seasoned volunteer, I’d never dream of laying on the floor of a building that houses 130 cats, let alone put my face in such a vulnerable position. My shifts consist largely of scooping litter boxes (or cleaning messes up off the floor when boxes are missed or purposely ignored), scrubbing dried vomit from the floors of cages, and brushing knots out of our long-haired residents.
Many of our cats are sweet and gentle, but we also have a wide array of temperamental ones. At best, I get hissed and growled at; at worst I get bit. I’ve been bitten five times over the past two years, four of them resulting in infections that required medical attention. It’s easy to think that you can just avoid interacting with the cats who are prone to biting or clawing, but those are often the cats that need the most attention.
Over the past two years, I have become quite accustomed to the amount of work asked of me at the shelter. I don’t bat an eyelash when cleaning up diarrhea, I’ve developed lightning-quick reflexes when it comes to breaking up fights, and I’ve gained the trust and friendship of a handful of the shelter’s most notorious meanies. What I haven’t mastered yet– and probably never will– is the loss. Whether cats are succumbing to an illness or being adopted into a loving home, it’s hard to let them go once you care for them.
I’m Tired But …
I’ve been tired lately. I’ve been working an absurd amount of hours, my oldest cat has been sick for months, and my personal life has been challenging. Sometimes it takes all of the energy I have to force myself to go to the shelter, but I always go. And sometimes (yes, only sometimes), I remember why I am so committed.
Luckily, tonight was one of those nights. After a long and brain-melting day of work, I showed up at the shelter feeling drained. First, I stopped in to say hi to Stallone, an old guy who was recently rescued from a hoarding situation. He’s terribly skinny, has been battling an URI for months, and has the most pathetically adorable mew you can imagine. I doubt Stallone would be alive today without the love and care he gets from shelter volunteers, who have to hold his plate up for him at mealtimes because he can’t breathe when he puts his head down.
In my room, the Infirmary, there was a new cat name Moe. His cage card read “Returned for litter box issues. Was adopted 10 years ago.” He hissed at me when I reached in to pet him, but he had a good reason to be upset. Litter box issues, though no doubt frustrating, are some of the easiest behavior problems to solve. There was likely a change in his home environment or health that caused him to start doing his business elsewhere, but instead of working to solve the problem, his family of 10 years abandoned him. Determined to help him feel more comfortable, I sat with him for a bit, then brushed him. By the end, he was purring instead of growling.
Part of a Solution
It’s hard work. It’s hard and stressful and emotionally draining and sometimes terrible… but I will always do it anyway. In the end, I am a small part of a large solution. I’m part of the reason these cats have a warm place to sleep, fresh water and food, and medical care. When I’m feeling burnt out, all I have to do is remind myself that volunteering at the shelter is just as good and beneficial for me as it is for them. When I wait out the growls, I get purrs. It’s not quite the same thing as laying on the floor while a wave of cats washes over me, but close enough.
Feature Photo Copyright: Axel Bueckert / 123RF Stock Photo