Podcast #36 – Gimme Shelter

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Stand by Me, by Rockapella

When the night is come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we see,                                                                                                                  No, I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid — just as long as you stand, stand by me.

When one of my friends talked to me about her work as a volunteer at our local animal shelter, I shuddered. I thought even visiting an animal shelter, believing it might be too sad to bear. But once you can actually take action to help animals, and can see how volunteers save lives of animals, the shelter becomes a place of joy despite the ongoing harsh realities. I attended our orientation and had to fight back the tears as we walked through the Cattery, with tiny kittens reaching out little paws in quiet supplication. But once I was working to help the animals, things changed considerably. I thought I would just do photography or off-site humane education; it was only four hours a month and I could probably weave that into my already busy schedule. That was how I talked myself into signing up. After all, supporting local shelters and sanctuaries is one of the commitments of our local animal rights group. I knew I needed to put my feelings aside and consider the feelings of the animals, so I dove right in. But what followed surprised me.

My first shift at the animal shelter was about three hours long and when it was done, I must admit I was exhausted. That was the only time I felt that drained, because in no time at all, I found I was getting stronger and getting energized from the work. I followed my friend around and learned a little bit about how to access the animals, how the shelter operated, what kind of tasks I could do that might that would be helpful to the animals, and how I could become a functioning part of that animal shelter.

The dogs at the shelter

Prepare to Lose Your Heart

One of the first things I learned at the animal shelter is how quickly one can give one’s heart and lose it totally to these animals. We had a young hound girl that was having difficulty recovering from her spaying procedure and, following my friend’s lead, I began going into her kennel and just holding her. She loved it, she appreciated it so much, and these animals are so expressive for the smallest little kindness. It is amazing that we give them so few. But I soon fell in love with her and started considering how I might take her home and make her a part of my own family.  That happens all the time; the only thing that saves me is that I could never pick just one!

I hope any of you listening will consider volunteering at your local shelter. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time in the shelter, it is still important to volunteer just to keep an eye on how things are going, how you might make life better, how you might help make a more efficient system to help more animals survive the process, and to increase the number of spays and neuters that are going on in your community so as to decrease the number of homeless animals.

While cleaning and other shelter tasks might not sound very energizing activities, I was surprised at how much I wanted to go back every day and see who I might help or who I might encourage. And because there is an endless need for tasks, and because the staff are so grateful to have the help, and we were made to feel so welcome within our local animal shelter, I found the shelter beckoning to me. It was difficult to stay away. I probably went more than I should this past summer due to the pressures of kitten and puppy season and an overwhelming number of cats, dogs and other animals in our shelter. I went more than I should have for my own mental health, but it is hard to stay away when you know in your going you might save a life.

If you are a vegan, it might be a more complex decision, because we know that some of the domesticated animals feed on other innocent animals so that makes our decision to help these animals a little more complicated. However,  for me it became an easier decision because I knew that I could just go in and get these animals out of their kennels and give comfort to some of these animals whether they survived the experience or not. At least that was how I originally talked myself into participating. Over time, though I have come to see working as a vegan in an animal shelter as a double opportunity to not only give comfort, help, support and advocacy to the animals in the shelter system, but also to bring awareness of and increase respect for other animals to those working within that system – the human animals.

Prepare to Change

IMG_1757-300x290Sometimes the decisions we make change us, and this was one of those decisions that definitely did. Just like the animals in labs, the animals at the slaughterhouse, the animals in entertainment: it is easier to look away than to recognize the needs and suffering of our fellow earthlings.But this opportunity was laid in my lap and I found I could not look away. There is not a single day I work at the shelter that I do not think of those other animals that I cannot see and still cannot help or give comfort to; I think all vegans go through that on a daily basis. The best we can do is try to educate others. We are reminded of that situation every time we drive down the street, look at billboards, turn on the television or radio, or just go about our daily lives. The callousness which meets other animals, the human domination of all other life forms, is so huge and so grief-inducing that one must develop ways of continuing on despite the grim statistics.  Is it always easy? Perhaps that is the wrong question to ask. Mahatma Gandhi has said:

A principle is a principle, and in no case can it be watered down because of our incapacity to live it in practice. We have to strive to achieve it, and the striving should be conscious, deliberate, and hard.

Cats in the shelter

Once those little babies beckon to you every day, it is hard to stay away from the shelter work.The truth is, we call these animals the lucky ones compared to others, but they are not that fortunate either. Some days we pick up dozens of strays, animals left to the elements without food, water or shelter, and may receive a couple of dozen others that are brought in by their guardians – abandoned, depressed, shocked and confused. Few find permanent homes; for cats, it is even more dismal than for dogs. These animals are the objects of human domination, hoarding, neglect, abuse, hunger, the weather, and many other forms of exploitation.

Prepare for Peace

In March, Nathan Winograd brought the No Kill formula to North Texas at a conference that proved to be worth driving a long distance in torrential rain. This conference was so inspirational that I would urge everyone who has any interest at all in attending. Mr. Winograd has written several books, is a vegan, and a shelter director who would not accept traditional ways of confining and killing animals. The core of his philosophy is that we need to find aggressive ways to rehome all the animals in our care. When killing is not an option, humans can become very creative. On and off site adoption events, community classes, reduced adoption fees, networking with rescues, building support groups within the community, building a fostering program and offering excellent customer service and public relations all lead to more and more adoptions. Without such support, the animals are at grave risk of losing everything they have, their very lives. We need to get them out of there!

We Gotta Get Out of This Place by the Rolling Stones

If our animals survive the original intake and holding period and finally find themselves with a glimmer of hope on the Adoption floor, then they have to deal with the ever ticking clock and the unrealistic expectations of some of us humans. And I do understand these expectations. It is understandable that we don’t want our lives disrupted, our homes annihilated, or our yards dug up; however, the animals we take into our homes are animals that need to learn to adapt to our human lifestyles. It is not natural for them. And most adapt very well. I am always amazed at how compassionate and forgiving these animals are to us humans. I only wish we humans could show them the same kind of love we find from the canines and felines and all the other animals we find in our shelters.

Changing the Paradigm

For the animals in the kennels looking outward, they see a steady stream of humans looking in at them and then walking off. They see a lot of different staff pulling them out of the kennels for a blood test, or an immunization, or for spaying and neutering procedures. All of these things are not fun at all, so it is not surprising that they balk at being led away from their kennel. With the volunteers, they usually are eager to leave, knowing it may mean a kennel run, some fresh air, or biscuit or just a scratch on the head. They crave that attention – they want us to SEE them, they talk to us so eagerly, and they try to express themselves so earnestly and so completely. They try to connect with us. They want and need our help.If you decide to volunteer at your local shelter, I can assure you that you will be rewarded with pure, unadulterated gratitude. It is a very rewarding and very demanding job. One of the things I would recommend is something I am not particularly good at and that is setting limits so that  you don’t burnout. Over the summer I had more time so I ended up spending every available minute there trying to combat the stready stream of kittens, puppies and other animals that were finding their way to the shelter. It was probably not optimal for my own mental health. If you limit your time to what is palatable for you and your schedule, I think you will find it a wonderful experience, a way to give back to your community, and a way to do direct rescue work for fellow earthlings that is meaningful and valuable.

IMG_1402-300x271Our local shelter now has five soon to be six vegans working inside. so we are fast becoming a presence there. I would hope that as there are more vegans involved there would be more awareness of how our choices impact other equally significant animals. Our local shelter support group now gives out V-Dog vegan dog food in our event gift bags. We now have a non-vegan who is promoting vegan leads for the animals because of that awareness. And, we just had vegan cupcakes at our recent Volunteer Appreciation Day – and it was not just vegans that were eating them. By working through differences, we increase understanding between the diverse group of volunteers. The bond we share in trying to help animals is very strong. One only has to read some of our internal messages to see how our presence is having an impact.

One of the most surprising aspects of my volunteering is what I have learned about animal shelters in general. Did you know that many still use the cruel and barbaric gas chambers? That many kill nearly every animal they capture or claim? That you must be cautious about sending checks to so-called animal advocacy groups, because many promote the killing of domesticates and oppose No Kill and TNR (trap, neuter and release) – a program that saves thousands of animal lives. That by providing support to local shelters, the killings rates go down dramatically? That an excellent shelter director is probably the most life-saving entity for animals since so much is about our relationship and attitude towards other animals. That shelters have many liabilities and many demands such as classes for errant animal guardians, programs like microchipping, public education, public relations, and media communication to facilitate saving more animals. That many host low cost spay and neuter clincis and low cost immunization clinics to help more animals and their families within the community. A shelter director has to wear many hats, and it is only with community support that the animals may be helped more fully.

Creative Advocacy Saves Lives!

We have a wonderful woman who comes into our shelter and takes personality photos of our kitties, so that potential adopters can meet the personality behind that ball of fur – since many cats sleep to deal with the mind-numbing boredom they experience while being confined. These photos are placed on their kennels so people can see the potential behind that glass partition. We put awards on the dog kennels as Most Loyal or Most Playful, so the potential adopters can see who lives behind those pleading eyes.  We give them names and use them. We use rescue groups who come into the shelter and take some of our urgent animals out of the shelter and buy them more time. They also take donations to help defray medical costs and other expenses. We have transportation networkers who help us pick up the animals to get them out in time. We have legislative advocates who help  promote TNR and other good pro-animal legistlation. We have a really good fostering program that provides and encourage community involvement in rescuing our animals. We have two support groups that promote our animals through social media sites and they are both quite effective. We have a host of volunteers, and most shelters really need an army of volunteers to get all the necessary work and support for the animals in our care.

Shelter animals are considered the lucky ones, but anyone spending much time in a shelter knows otherwise. They are used, abused, neglected and tossed out like yesterday’s garbage. If these are the animals we supposedly love, we have a very disturbing view of what love means. We see them with injuries, ribs showing through, diseased and broken, beseeching us as innocent  children of any species would. And we fail them in epic ways. Only a small percentage with ever find any real sanctuary, belonging, or safety. Like all the other animals on the planet, they are at our mercy, and we have so very little of that for them. They are always just a shot away from death.

Just a Shot Away, Just a Kiss Away

If you can, please stand by them. Meet them. Advocate for them. Adopt them. Foster them. Change the world for them. Then, maybe someday, we can change the world for all the other animals, too.

Gimme Shelter, by Playing for Change

War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away

I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away
Kiss away, kiss away

Let’s give some love away, let’s give some love away!

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