Why Do Animal Shelters Need Volunteers?
In an ideal world, there would be no need for volunteering. For animal shelters, the reality is that animal neglect and abuse has lead to a vast surplus of abandoned and mistreated animals. With resources for all community services being overstretched, it is no understatement to say that many animal shelters could not operate without the help of volunteers. One consequence of a lack of adequate shelters is the needless death of many otherwise healthy animals.
To help you know what goes on behind the scenes of different sanctuaries, AnimalWised investigates why animal shelters need volunteers. Finding out more about the good work animal carers do may even inspire you to spare some of your own good will.
Animal shelters, pounds, sanctuaries, wildlife recovery centers... are they the same?
Before we start explaining the work volunteers at animal shelters engage in, we need to explain why we need animal shelters in the first place. We also need to differentiate between the different types of shelters and care facilities for animals. These include:
- Animal control: The term pound is not an official one, but can be used to describe government run animal shelters. A city or region's animal control center is a public sector facility administered by councils or other local government departments. They are in charge of the collection and management of abandoned or stray animals. They will also take care of animals which have been deemed dangerous, often due to attacks or involvement in organized crime. It will depend on the region what legislation is in place, but often they will euthanize animals who are not claimed within a certain time. Adoption may be easier from these shelters and they usually do not include services such as sterilization or vaccination. Also, they tend to be government funded and may not have as many volunteers.
- Animal shelter: these may be subsidized by government departments, but are generally privately owned institutions which are financed through fundraising and donations. They rely much more on volunteering as they are generally nonprofit organizations which rely on generosity of time and money. Often rescue animal shelters will offer sterilization, microchipping and vaccination for reduced amounts to promote these beneficial practices. They will also usually have a foster network of people who can temporarily house animals until permanent homes are found. These volunteers are essential to many shelters as they won't otherwise have the room to care for them.
- Animal sanctuary: similar to an animal shelter, a sanctuary runs on donations and requires volunteers to help care for the animals. What is different is that the animals are not there to be rehoused, but will generally spend the rest of their lives in this facility. They also usually have a more diverse range of animals as they take in animals from farms, rodeos, racing facilities or the like. Many animal shelters, particularly those in cities, are only able to take care of domestic animals. Sanctuaries will often have more open space and accommodation. Volunteers may need to be specialized in certain types of care, making them even more important.
- Wildlife recovery center: these facilities are rarely in central urban areas as they exist to rehabilitate sick or displaced wildlife. While there are exceptions, most of the animals here are destined to be reintroduced back to their natural habitat. In particular they take care of ‘vulnerable’ species and the country or region will need people with specialized training to meet the needs of the animals. They are usually government or grant funded, but will also need fund raising. Volunteers here are often specialized individuals such as zoologists who may be using their time to both look after animals and bolster their career experience.
The main reason why animal shelters is because there are not enough resources available to fund the facilities out there. People will often devote their time to their passions and, fortunately, there are many people who are passionate about animal welfare. We read messages from them every day in our comments and email inboxes. In fact, according to The Nonprofit Almanac, volunteers across all sectors in the US contributed the equivalent of $298.42 billion worth of work in 2011.
Volunteering not only provides much needed assistance to the animals, but provides great benefit to the volunteers themselves, even if the work can be difficult. One main benefit is the simple ability to spend time with animals, something difficult to do in urban cultures.
Another important reason why animal shelters need volunteers is that retention can be difficult. In her masters thesis in 2013, Rebecca Davis points out that retaining volunteers can be difficult due to the sheer amount of work involved, as well as the often stressful experiences in terms of caring for abused and neglected animals. There are mitigating reasons, but animal shelters need new volunteers because old ones can't always stay forever.
Exercise and walking for dogs
The majority of animals in shelters will have limited space. While cages may seem cruel, the lack of adequate real estate means that it is a necessity if they want to maintain the well-being of large numbers of dogs. However, the animals will still need to be exercised and walking is fundamental to canine health. Not only do they need the exercise, but they need the mental stimulation of being outdoors, socializing with other animals and expending the pent up energy creating by spending long periods caged. Improving their health will also help their chances of adoption.
Volunteers are then often tasked with taking the dogs for walks and providing them some of the respite they dearly need. Different dogs need different amounts of exercise, depending on breed, age and condition. However, as shelters can often be stressful places for dogs, the walks should generally be calm so as not to overstimulate the animals. They should also not be overwhelmed with obedience training.
Socializing cats and dogs
Most domestic animals, including cats and dogs, are sociable animals. Their basic needs include contact with other living beings so they can remain mentally vibrant. This is especially the case for younger animals which are in their socialization period. For dogs this is between three weeks and three months and between two weeks and two weeks for cats. During this time they learn the basic skills they need to live a healthy coexistence with humans and other animals. If they do not receive adequate socialization, they will likely develop behavioral problems in later life.
Animal shelters need volunteers to provide this important role. If they are not able to do it, the animals run the risk of behavioral problems getting in the way of their potential adoption. Fortunately, especially with puppies and kittens, socialization is tremendous fun.
Promote animal adoption
While taking care of the animals' well-being will greatly improve their chances of adoption, direct contact is not the only helpful way to do this. Promoting animal welfare through fundraising and awareness is also vital. Whether running drives, organizing sponsored events or simply asking directly for help, volunteers are needed to get support for the cause. They are also vital in showing potential adopters around and introducing them to the animals. Also, vetting people for their suitability is an important part of the adoption process which can't be ignored.
Awareness may involve speaking to different governmental departments or canvassing local communities. One of the best ways volunteers can help is to take pictures and video content of the animals to promote the shelter on both social and traditional media platforms. There is a lot of administration required to meet the needs of the animals. Creating profiles for individual animals is something to which many volunteers might be tasked.
Cleaning a dog's cage or replacing a cat's litter may not be as enjoyable as interacting and playing with the animals, but it is not less important in animal shelter accommodation. According to the ASPCA, 6.5 million companion animals end up in US animal shelters every year. Thus number means shelters are often overcrowded and poor hygiene can have very bad outcomes for both animals and shelter workers. Volunteers are needed to help clean up after the animals as well as clean utensils and equipment used to care for them.
In some cases, volunteers may even be employed in feeding, bathing and providing other basic care needs. These are generally strictly governed by shelter coordinators, but there is still lots to be done. Volunteers will also be given training to know what to do, with many of the volunteer trainers being volunteers themselves.
Sheltering sick animals
Some animals may arrive at a shelter because their previous care givers were unable to meet their needs. Sometimes this is because the animals have specific veterinary conditions which made their care too difficult or they declined to meet the responsibility. For this reason, some animal shelters will also need volunteers to look after these needs. They may more likely be specialized and, as mentioned above, it is common for them to be veterinary students who can also use the experience to help with their studies.
Volunteering for farm animals
There is quite a difference in urban animal shelters and those in rural areas as the animals present in these regions differ. Sanctuaries for pastoral animals are also in need of volunteers and these may also require individuals with specific experience. If a sanctuary has horses, especially those which have been neglected or abused, then volunteers without adequate knowledge of their care may not be effective.
Not only do animal shelters need volunteers, we can see that they need some more specific assistance. It is not uncommon for volunteers to develop a position after spending time in shelters. If they are effective, they may be able to makes developments which allow for their hiring or they are known to the shelter when a position becomes available. If you are interested in volunteering in an animal shelter, check your local listings and don't forget to check their reviews so they are reputable.
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