Volunteering at a shelter

If you’re reading this, you’re interested in being a volunteer for an animal rescue or shelter.  Which, I can tell you, is a wonderful experience – whether you are helping to care for dogs, cats, birds, farm animals or any other of our fellow creatures.  And, as in all things we do, you will find volunteering rewarding in proportion to the thought and effort that you put into it.  I’ve been volunteering for years at a shelter here in Rhode Island and would like to share some of the things I’ve learned.

First, think about what you want to do and carefully pick the shelter that matches your interests.  Take some time and think about what you’d like to do as a volunteer and then look at the websites for the various shelters and rescue organizations that are near to you.  Research their rules and requirements, and their various volunteer programs.  You may find that some are looking for help in areas that do not match your goals.  You may also find that some have hours set aside for volunteer work that do not line up with your available time.  For example, I know of a wonderful avian shelter that has very specific in-house training requirements for volunteers that may be more than you want to take on.  Or you might find that a shelter has specific time slots for volunteers so that they can maintain a certain number of personnel on site during the day, which may be unworkable for you.  Take your time and look at every shelter that interests you and is within a reasonable distance for you before plunging in.

Second, I suggest that you stay local.  If you want to be active with a shelter organization, you should pick one that is within a relatively easy commute.  Your time is important, and you don’t want to spend your day in your car.  If you’ve decided that you can spend “x” number of hours helping at a shelter each week, you don’t want to add a lot more time to that just driving back and forth.

Third, be flexible.   You might sign up to walk and socialize dogs, care for cats, feed the animals, assist with adoptions or do groundskeeping (a very important and often overlooked function), but you might be asked to do other tasks as well.  Many shelters are dependent upon volunteers for their basic functions; you might have opportunities to help with a fundraising activity, transporting animals, or doing other tasks that help the shelter function.  Remember, you’re there to help.

Fourth, check your ego at the door.  Shelter staffs are underpaid and overworked.  They are busy with essential functions every moment they are at work.  Believe me, they appreciate what you’re doing to help them and the animals, even if they don’t always have the time or energy to say so.  Seeing the animals go home with adopters is your reward.

Fifth, watch and learn.   The more you know about the operations of the shelter, the better you can help the staff to run it and the more assistance you can provide.  If you don’t understand why something it being done, ask.  Keep in mind that a reputable shelter must function within strict state and local regulations regarding almost all of its activities, from animal care to fundraising.  Take all the training that the shelter can offer you, from orientation to advanced care.

Sixth, stay positive.  Shelter staffs are stressed and fatigued, and if you can be a positive presence, it makes their jobs a little easier.  And every day won’t be a good day.  You’re inevitably going to find that the animals’ stories don’t always have a have a happy ending.  And if you find that a particular case is heartbreaking, keep in mind that its even harder on the shelter staff.

Seventh, be good at what you do.  If you are there to clean dog runs or cat cages, to do administrative work or to feed the animals, do it well.  If you are there to do maintenance or groundskeeping, do an excellent job.  Each of these functions is essential to the health and welfare of the animals – which is why you’re there in the first place.

Again, these are just my observations.  You might find that there are aspects of shelter volunteering that I’ve missed, or that I haven’t made a point well enough.  Feel free to comment or add your observations.

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