Depressing. Scary. Dirty. Hopeless.
These were all the reasons why I resisted volunteering at an animal shelter. I’m irrationally emphatic when it comes to furry creatures, but that was the very thing holding me back from donating my time at a shelter. I had fostered dogs through rescue groups in the past, but with two senior, grouchy dogs my home was no longer a great option for foster pups.
A dear friend pushed me to shadow her during one of her volunteer shifts at the SPCA of Wake County. Despite telling her I wasn’t emotionally capable of seeing frightened and isolated animals, she kept reassuring me that I would be pleasantly surprised. She was right! Three months later, I’m an active, happy volunteer and have taken away valuable life lessons.
1. Assumptions are toxic.
Today’s climate is full of aggressive perceptions lately. Social media is a dark hole for politic argument and harsh judgement. In an attempt to avoid this turning into a politic post, I’m going to assume you can rationally connect the dots here…
I truly thought people who volunteer at animal shelters and don’t walk away emotionally wasted must either not care for animals as much as I do or they willing sacrifice their mental health, because they are freaking angels. Gah, I feel embarrassed to even admit that now. Stepping out of my comfort zone and turning my assumptions into different reality not only changed my view on volunteering at the SPCA, but opened my eyes to other areas of my life that may be constricted by tunnel vision.
2. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing.
I would be lying if I said volunteering at an animal shelter didn’t have hard-hitting moments. However, it doesn’t come from seeing forgotten pets in the shelter rooms. It is the history that some of them carry: abused, neglected, used for breeding and then discarded, starved, etc…
During a recent shift, I was walking down the hall of the SPCA of Wake County and stopped dead in my tracks. A gorgeous gray pit bull was being brought into the shelter fresh from surgery. Her body was covered in several long, angry stitches. The staff didn’t know what caused her initial injuries, but she was a mess. To my novice eyes, they didn’t look like bite marks from a dog fight. Before my imagination conjured up a story, the pittie lifted her tail and moved toward me. She sniffed my hand and allowed me to pet her soft head. Regardless of the horrors she had experienced, she didn’t hold that against me. Animals possess an unearthly way of forgiving and accepting love. A lesson humans should exercise more often.
3. A little attention goes a long way.
We all hustle through life. We fall into routines and neglect the opportunity for little shared moments. Volunteering with animals reminded me how little gestures can go a long way.
Jess, a pit/lab mix is a perfect example. In her doggie room, she is very quiet and still. Usually asleep on her cozy bed, she looks pretty content. I’ve had the pleasure on working with her twice this week, but I was getting discouraged that she never wanted to play with toys in the yard. So, I took a different approach today. I just sat down on the ground and she immediately pushed her entire body into mine. She laid her head on my shoulder and I laid my head on hers and we just sat. For 15 minutes, we just cuddled and connected. At one point, she took a huge breath and exhaled. I heard her, “I just needed some loving attention.” Don’t we all, Jess, don’t we all.
4. Be you.
Some people have to sleep with socks on. Some people think sleeping in socks is some sort of torture device. We all have our “things.” Daisy, a hound mix full of personality, is the perfect example. She had to (had to!) be let out into the yard with her leash still intact. I can’t tell you why, but if you took it off (and I did, because I thought she was being ridiculous and didn’t want her to pee on it!) and she went bonkers. She ran around and wouldn’t let me get near her. I realized I was forcing my opinion on the matter on her and kept the leash on during my second round of outside time with her. All went well. She happily played with me…leash dangling like her super hero cape.
I imagine volunteering anywhere can remind you of life’s most important lessons. For me, getting over my ill-placed misconceptions and volunteering at the SPCA of Wake County has been a tremendously rewarding experience. I encourage you to do the same!
Visit the SPCA website for all their volunteer opportunities: http://spcawake.org/get-involved/volunteer/