Behind the Doors

lock-300x200Following a two hour orientation earlier in the week, I began working in earnest at the local animal shelter. Most shelters are actually part of Animal Control and sadly, that is the focus of their mission – to control animals so they do not disrupt the lives of humans. This immediately puts other animals on the losing end of the equation. I found the orientation and tour of the facility to be quite emotional and was not certain I was up to the task of witnessing the reality these animals face on a daily or basis. I was also concerned about not wanting any energy drained from promotion of veganism and our local animal rights group, but I knew there were other vegans volunteering in the facility, and hoped I might help increase our voice from behind the doors.

Three Hours

Once I actually acclimated by shadowing a more experienced volunteer, I was surprised to find the need so overwhelming and immediate that there was no time for concern about my feelings at all. The facility in which I work is fairly new and modern, and cleanliness is paramount. The shelter is progressive and makes an aggressive attempt to recruit and utilize large numbers of volunteers, fosters, mobile adoptions and online advocacy to increase the save rate. And it is working. With the March No Kill Conference in Addison, more and more people in the area are beginning to understand the roots of our shelter problems and consider unique ways to diminish the negative impacts we humans have on other animals.There are also two groups who work to support the shelter animals through fostering, social media and other advocacy.

After only three hours of the poop patrol, wrestling with large dogs, listening to barks and squeals, and witnessing humans abandoning animals in the Meet and Greet rooms, I was worn out for the day. The dozens of Owner Release animals were heartbreaking, animals who are not kept as long since they know no one is searching for them. They enter confused, distraught, and in grief and have to adjust to confinement and isolation. As I entered a group of kennels, some of the young dogs would jump waist-high just to get a peek at me over the solid bottom barrier of their kennel. Others, those tall enough, would place a paw longingly towards me at the midsection of their kennel door, where chain link and vision begin. The desire to gather up every single animal and help them escape was strong, but there was always a pup lying in their own waste that needed immediate attention or a kennel that needed to be sprayed and cleaned.

Saving Other Children

It was obvious after three hours that these animals are like toddlers locked in closets. They want out. They want to run, and sniff the grass, and claw the earth. They want to play with others of their species and lick and snuggle with their own. They want reprieve from the boredom and loneliness of their plight. Just like human toddlers, they need attention, love and discipline. They want to matter to someone, and they do.

It was amazing to me that after wrangling a large dog out to the small gravel run for a few minutes respite, and then encouraging him to go back into his kennel after it was cleaned, nearly every single dog was cooperative. Why don’t they bite us and try to tear us apart for what we are doing to them? We have created a prison for the innocent, a death sentence for the guiltless. Most of the rejected dogs have done nothing more than being dogs, or cats for being cats and having claws and curiosity and investigating their world.

Much of what I learned harkened me back to my days working with kids in foster care and the juvenile justice system. Most of us therapists were more frustrated with the parents than the kids (though not always). The kids at least were still, for the most part, educable. Likewise, it would seem that the problematic entities here were the irresponsible adults who did not understand how to work with animals, how important early training is, or what the animal in question might need. With children, some adults are just not equipped to become parents and some of our agencies are not as efficient as we would like in helping to support them. The same dynamics are at work in many shelters. Our shelter just received a grant that will allow them to offer some pre-adoption training for community members so they might reduce the return rate. Of course, some animals lose their owners to death or disease, or financial downturn, or foreclosure and those social ills are a bit out of our control altogether, but where we might decrease returns, we should.

What Does It Mean: “I Love Animals?”

Many of us profess to loving animals, yet what we really mean is we enjoy them. We eat them, we wear them, we scrub out homes with their remains. We casually adopt them and callously return them when it is inconvenient to continue on. We like to gawk at them behind glass at aquariums and zoos. We make ourselves feel more significant by making fun of them and using them as insults to one another. We sit in chairs made of their skins and hunt them down for sport and because we can. We really cannot articulate our complex relationship with other animals and usually reduce it to something along these lines: “I love animals.” But do we, really? Do we even see them, or respond to their needs?

I am getting trained next to work in the Cattery and look forward to making life a tiny bit more hopeful for more animals. Even cleaning a dirty litter box, or taking a dog out to the run can become important to the quality of life and chance for a future for these young beings. It was wonderful to meet so many hardworking, dedicated individuals who walk through the muck and spend so many hours helping to get these young animals out of their prison and confinement. It takes no time at all to know them by name and personality, to rejoice when they are adopted, or to grieve when they are rejected. And because of the numbers, they keep coming, coming, coming, so there is no time to pause to reflect for long; there is work to be done.

And meanwhile, we can keep up the positive work of creative vegan education. The day before I worked in the shelter, I spent the day at a corporate health fair, promoting veganism and trying to increase understanding and respect for other animals. I was not certain that working in a shelter would be feasible for someone like me, but I found that it enhanced my dedication to take up the cause for all animal rights. At times, the companion animals that are so well accepted by most of us as individuals become a way into discussing how the invisible animals, the pigs and cows and birds, are also individuals with unique personalities, who dream and worry and want to live. We must never forget the animals behind the doors, whether inside of shelters, or factory farms, or abattoirs. The best way I know to help is to gain access and report on their stories, to remind us all that we need to consider their lives as integral as our own to the world. And to do some of the dirty work that is involved, as well.

Note: Our local shelter only requires a four hour per month commitment. They rely on the work of volunteers to meet the animals’ needs. Please check with your local shelter to see if you might help become a voice for the animals in your locale.