Monday, November 2, 2015

It's National Animal Shelter and Rescue Appreciation Week!

Support Your Local Animal Shelter or Cat Rescue Group!

Each year, the first full week of November is set aside to honor those working in shelters and rescue groups to rescue animals. It's draining work. Just seeing the sheer numbers of homeless animals can quickly become overwhelming. So let's take a closer look at what these folks do, naturally focusing on the cats in their care, and how we can help them.

What Shelter Workers Do

Employees and volunteers at municipal shelters see a daily influx of cats, dogs, and often other animals: rabbits, pigs, goats, horses, reptiles, name it, and somebody's likely turned it in at a shelter. Nationwide, the ASPCA reports that around 7.6 million animals arrive at shelters each year. 3.4 million of those are cats. 

The pets may be brought in as strays or surrendered by owners who no longer wish to care for them. Some are sick, injured, or dying. All are confused, frightened, and aware that other animals there are also fearful for their lives. Calling it a stressful environment is a severe understatement!

What these folks do with the never-ending flood of unwanted pets is to give them hope and comfort. Veterinarians, either on staff or volunteering their services, examine the animals, screen for diseases, care for the sick, and perform spay/neuter surgeries on those going into adoptions. 

The cats likely go into a quarantine area upon arrival until they get a clean bill of health. They are put into a cage or crate with a litter box, bed or blanket (if one is available), and a water dish. They may be given a little food. Beyond this, the animals coming in receive very little attention from the intake staff because there's always another coming in not far behind them.

Other shelter workers or volunteers give the animals food and water, clean their cages, assess their personalities for adoption, exercise the dogs, play with the cats, mop the floors, and move the animals where they need to be. There is always laundry to be done, paperwork to be processed, and poop to be scooped somewhere.

For cats who have been living on the streets or as part of a feral colony, the confinement itself is stressful. The noise of dogs constantly barking nearby adds to their fear. Some cats choose to spend all their time sitting in the litter box, finding their own bodily scents comforting. Others will hide anywhere they can find, even if this means just putting their face in a corner of the crate. Some may become aggressive whenever someone reaches for them in the cage; after all, this is what people do when they're about to end the life of an unwanted animal.

That task in itself must be the most stressful of all. Shelters have only so much space, so ending the lives of healthy, adoptable animals merely because they have no homes is far too common. Each year, 1.2 million dogs and 1.4 million cats meet their end in a shelter. In some shelters, the animals are dead even before the person dropping them off has completed the surrender paperwork.

Only when an animal is in severe pain or suffering can this be called euthanasia. Thankfully, many shelters are turning to the no-kill system and choosing to end the killing of healthy animals. Nathan Winograd, a shelter director who abhorred the killing and sought to stop it, founded the No Kill Advocacy Center to help other shelters adopt his practices. Best Friends Animal Society also helps shelters and rescues end the killing by providing support and training.

Running a no-kill shelter requires the help of many volunteers, and the dedication of leaders who embrace the concept that no animal deserves to die merely for being homeless. They work in partnership with other local rescue groups to get healthy animals adopted, while caring for the sick and injured who can be saved until they're ready to go into adoptions.

Yes, shelter work is stressful. Employees often burn out after a short tenure. Most love the animals they care for and are dedicated to keeping them safe and healthy until they are adopted into new, loving homes. They must endure seeing animals who have been intentionally abused. Animals injured with no known owner. Animals too sick for their owners to be able to afford their vet bills. People posing as adopters who are merely trying to acquire animals for nefarious purposes. People tearful at being forced to surrender their beloved pets due to circumstances beyond their immediate control. These shelter workers must look into the eyes of the animals left behind, trying to answer their questions about why they've been abandoned, why they've been hurt, and what will happen to them there.

How We Can Help Shelters and Rescue Groups

Thankfully, we can help stressed-out shelter workers in several ways! Familiarize yourself with your local shelter and cat rescue organizations. Once you know who they are, choose where you will focus your efforts.

If you have the time, volunteer at your local shelter. The work may not always be pleasant, but the company certainly is! Do laundry, scoop litter boxes, play with bored and lonely cats, cuddle and comfort them, socialize the kittens and teach them how to play safely with humans. Help them publicize the animals available for adoption. Help train other volunteers. Help them with the flood of paperwork, as there's always plenty of that. Whatever they'll let you do, do it!

When volunteering at a municipal shelter, be aware of their rules and be certain to follow them. Many an over-enthusiastic volunteer has put the life of an animal in danger while trying to help. Don't let that person be you!

Shelters are always in need of beds, blankets, towels, toys...anything that can help make an animal's stay there a little more comfortable. You can make such items if you enjoy that sort of thing.

Not the crafty type? Shelter support groups often need people to serve in leadership positions. This likely goes hand in hand with volunteering your time at the shelter itself, just so you have an understanding of what they face. If you can't volunteer directly with the animals, perhaps the publicity side of things is more your area of expertise. Help with their website or take photos and make flyers about adoptable animals there. Maybe you can handle interaction with local pet stores to organize adoption events for the animals. Or organize fundraisers to supplement their thin budget. They can likely supply you with a full list of things you can do to help!

If you don't have the time to volunteer at your local shelter or rescue group, perhaps you have the means to support them financially. Every gift, no matter how small, is welcome and will go to help the animals there. Donate supplies such as beds, crates, and toys. Make sure they're clean, so as not to spread disease. If toys are washable, all the better, as the shelter has to wash and re-use toys once animals move on and are replaced by others. Shelters get a lot of donations through the holiday season, but many people forget about them the rest of the year. Let your support be ongoing.

In the event that your own cats get outside and become lost, make sure they have identification that will help them find their way home to you. If they have microchips, make sure that your address and contact information are updated for them. Shelters always scan incoming animals for a microchip, but are often frustrated when the owner has moved and neglected to update their information. Or put a tag on your cat's collar or harness with your information on it. The SmartLink tag was one we offered on Old Maid Cat Lady.

If nothing else, just say thank-you to the people who work at your local shelter or rescue group. That little bit of gratitude may be just what they need to turn around an otherwise overwhelming day.

Yes, shelter work is stressful and very much needed in our society. Let's all honor our shelter and rescue workers and volunteers this week, and pitch in to help them!

Sources: "Pet Statistics", American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; "Ten Ways to Help Your Local Shelter or Rescue", The Humane Society of the United States.

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