Shelters are not all created equal, and volunteering can be very different from one city to the next. If you’re thinking of helping out at your local shelter, there are some things you need to know before grabbing your volunteer T-shirt and diving straight in.
1. Time Commitment
Shelters may have a set schedule for their volunteers, so you might not be able to sign up for just an event or pop in when you have a free day. There might also be a minimum amount of hours to meet to keep your volunteer title, so always ask up front what’s expected of you.
One of the reasons I love my local shelter is their lack of requirements. I can stop by whenever I have free time, and they email me once per week with a list of upcoming events for which they need volunteers.
2. Training Requirements
You may be required to complete a training program or class before you can work at the shelter. Training may be given for each individual or, like at my shelter, held only once per month. Ask when the next training will be available and how long it will take.
3. Tasks Involved
This item is particularly important. What you may end up doing can be far from what you imagine.
Are you allergic to cats but not dogs, or vice versa? Do you detest poop but are happy to pass out fliers or answer the phones? There are many tasks involved for the shelter to keep running, so ask what is available and see which tasks you prefer to tackle.
4. Animal Types and Sizes
Check to see what types of animals are housed or taken in at the shelter before signing up. Most shelters have cats and dogs, but some may take in birds, rats or snakes. If you have an aversion to any type of animal, ask which ones you will be expected to assist.
Some shelters, like mine, have separate buildings for cats and dogs. One volunteer was fearful of large dogs, but she was happy to help maintain the cat cottage for hours each day. With any luck, your shelter will have something that fits your preferences perfectly.
5. Weather Conditions
Indoor areas are normally climate-controlled, but you may have to work in outdoor areas or runs for the animals. Extreme heat or cold may be possible depending on your location, so be prepared to work with the elements or request indoor-only work.
6. Accident and Injury Policy
You may be volunteering at your own risk. Some facilities may require you to sign a waiver so that they will not be held liable if you are injured or involved in an accident. If this is a major concern for you, ask about it in advance.
7. Equipment Use
Different types of equipment may be required for certain jobs. Ask about the tools you will need to perform for your volunteering duties in case it’s something unexpected. Office work uses pretty standard equipment, but you might need to use pressure washers or construction equipment.
8. Noise Level
Even though shelters may take excellent care of their animals, even my own facility can be ear splitting with nonstop barking at times. The cat cottage is much quieter, but if noise is a concern you might want to ask where you will be working and with which animals. Ear plugs are not an unusual sight.
9. Scared Animals
Not every animal at the shelter is used to being there or enjoys their surroundings, and they may be just as scared of you as you are of them. As you get to know the animals, they can become more comfortable around you. If you are unsure about approaching an animal, ask a shelter employee for assistance first. Accidents can and do happen, and sometimes a scratch or bite is just a very scared animal’s way of trying to protect itself.
Shelters may require you to complete a paper or online application before you can be considered for volunteer work. These applications can vary greatly; some may ask for basic information such as your address or phone number, while others may require employment history, references and more. Ask for a sample application if it’s required, and feel free to ask questions about the information they are requesting.
Even if your duties restrict you to an office, being inside an animal shelter is a sure bet that you will come into contact with pet hair and dander. This shouldn’t deter you, though; there are plenty of ways you can help the shelter without having to be inside. Graphic design, passing out handbills, volunteering at a fundraiser and more are all great ways to get involved without the fur flying by your nose.
12. Volunteer Overload
Shelters can be overflowing with volunteers sometimes, and they may not need or want to take on additional volunteers. Don’t fret. Check around at other shelters or call rescue organizations to see if they can use some help. This could be anything from working with the animals to doing graphic design or helping them advertise available animals for adoption.
13. Shelter Expectations
If you haven’t been to your local shelter yet, stop by and ask for a tour. Shelters are operated differently; some may resemble a clinic or zoo while others are underfunded and understaffed. If your priority is helping a no-kill shelter, ask if they euthanize animals before you sign up.
Many shelters operate veterinary services at their locations, and those will involve euthanizations for ill pets. The type of euthanasia mentioned previously refers to shelters that euthanize animals due to overcrowding. Unfortunately, many places still do this across the country, so ask up front if it’s a sticky point for you.
14. Animal Person May Not Equal a People Person
Some people work with animals because they prefer their company over people. In short, don’t take offense if someone seems a little quiet or shy. You have a common interest at heart, and talking about animals is a sure way to strike up a conversation.
If you volunteer at a kill shelter, it can be heartbreaking to see animals you have come to know and love be taken for euthanasia. Even in a no-kill shelter like mine it’s easy to get attached to the animals and miss them once they are adopted. I play out scenarios in my head of how I can buy a bigger property and save them all, but it’s simply not feasible. I tell myself they are going to a loving home and that’s all that matters.
You will also see animals in pain, dealing with injuries, trying to recover from abuse or even being returned after being adopted. These are normal shelter occurrences that will happen.
The video below shows a tour of the dogs at the Memphis Animal Shelter. For me, this is the hardest part of volunteering. Walking past those cages, seeing those sad eyes — it takes everything in me not to open that gate, give a hug, and promise that someone out there will save them and give them a life of love and happiness.
The key to being fully prepared before volunteering is getting the answers to the above questions. Also, be honest and realistic about how much time and effort you can spare. I always want to volunteer for every event and visit the shelter as much as possible, and truth be told I would happily be there every day.
That’s not possible, but I am comforted in knowing that other volunteers are there regularly helping the animals and giving them comfort. Let’s hope one of those volunteers will be you!
Photos: Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition (BARC)