Followers of my personal blog have probably already gathered I work at my local humane society (animal shelter). It’s an extremely tiring, but also extremely rewarding job. Working there has shown me that some things I take for granted between working at this and previous jobs are not widely known.
For the purposes of this article, I will be using “humane society” and “shelter/animal shelter” interchangeably, since that’s what I want to focus on.
To begin with, there is not one organization running every humane society. This seems to throw a lot of people off, even if they realize donations to the Humane Society of the United States do not, in fact, go directly to local humane societies. Confusing, right? The best way to make sure you’re donating to your local humane society is to donate directly to them. Try to not expect all of them to run the same way, either. National humane society organizations are entirely different beasts than the local shelter.
There are different types of humane societies. Some are no-kill, some are high-kill, and some are in between. The one I work at is one of those in between, we only euthanize if an animal is so sick or injured that we can’t help it, or is dangerously aggressive. We take those decisions very seriously, and will always attempt other solutions first.
There are plusses and minuses to each type. No-kill shelters tend to fill up quickly and stay full, often having long waiting lists, as a start. While some may not agree with me, I feel it’s important to remember that not all “kill” shelters are necessarily euthanizing animals that fail to be adopted within a time limit. Most shelters will explain their policies to you if you ask.
Please bear in mind any advice I give about donating or volunteering applies to MY shelter, but may not apply to yours. The same goes for our policies and standards. When in doubt, ask!
Before I started working at my animal shelter, I always wanted to volunteer or donate but was usually sketchy on the details. I couldn’t commit to certain times thanks to an ever-changing work schedule, and I often didn’t have a whole lot of money to spare. In the absence of a clear plan, it fell into the, “I should really do that someday” abyss.
At my shelter, we definitely welcome any volunteers, even if they can only come in a few times a year. While there’s always plenty of cleaning to do, we also offer volunteer opportunities to walk dogs or socialize (ie: play with) cats and any small animals we have. Volunteers can walk one dog for ten minutes or 5 dogs for two hours; whatever they can do is helpful. The only thing we try to schedule in advance is cleaning, since that allows us to plan the day better.
One sad reality is we don’t have the staff to walk every dog every day. While we do keep up with those in boarding, we rely on our volunteers for the rest. Walking them doesn’t only lead to happier and healthier dogs, it can improve their chances of being adopted if they have a chance to burn off some of their excess energy! Feedback from our volunteers is also incredibly useful when talking to potential adopters, we can tell them how the dog behaves on leash and other valuable information.
Some shelters may allow you to help with clerical work, building and grounds maintenance, or fundraising. Artists might be able to help with posters and signs. Volunteer work is definitely a case where you probably have more options than you realize, if you just ask.
Donations are welcome in any amount, and even the smaller amounts are more useful than you’d think. Even though we use a petsafe cleaner when possible, we are still forever running out of bleach. Ditto things like laundry detergent, hand soap, other cleaning supplies, dish soap, paper towels, and even toilet paper.
Many valuable donations don’t need to cost anything at all; where I work we use old towels and washcloths for cleaning. Old, stained blankets can be given to the animals, and of course the same goes for any old pet toys or supplies that can be bleached. Leashes, beds, collars…most things can be put to use one way or another.
Another way to help is by signing up at Walk for a Dog. This phone app tracks each walk you take with your (or any) dog, and donates to your local animal shelter based on how much you walk. Their donations come entirely from their sponsors, making this one way to raise money without spending any yourself.
Pet food is always a valuable donation, but if it’s something you’re picking up specifically to donate, I’d encourage you to call the shelter first. Find out what their most pressing needs are! For a while, our shelter desperately needed canned kitten food, at another time we may need dog food or cat litter more. Some shelters may prefer specific brands of food or types of cat litter. Asking what the shelter needs most is not meant to obligate you to provide it, only to provide a useful piece of information.
Many student organizations give credit for volunteer hours, and volunteering can also look very good on a resume. The resume portion can be extremely helpful if you’ve been out of work, showing that you’ve still been busy and (hopefully) part of a team.
If you are employed, you can always ask your employer if they do any donation matching or otherwise support their employees’ volunteer efforts. Many businesses have some form of program, and if they don’t it might be a good idea to start. Other than helping your community, it’s very good press, after all.
Spending time with animals can have health benefits according to many sources, and volunteering at a shelter can get you that time if you can’t own pets yourself. My own pets have been hugely helpful in times I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety, if I didn’t have them I would definitely seek out other places to get animal time.
I realize that some people can’t volunteer or donate for many reasons. Maybe you’re uncomfortable around stray animals, maybe you don’t agree with your local shelter’s policies, maybe you just absolutely do not have the time. That is perfectly ok, and I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad – remember the part where I never got around to actually volunteering? My only point here is to highlight some helpful things you can do that might not occur to everyone. One final time, check with your local shelter to see how you can best help them, I can almost promise you won’t regret it. 😉