I have always been an animal lover. One of my earliest memories is of laying in the grass of a neighbor’s yard, while a litter of puppies covered me with puppy breath, tiny tongues, and soft fur. I have had many pets throughout my life, but with the current state of pet overpopulation in our country, I have begun to wonder about the ethics of “owning” another living creature. Mahatma Gandhi said “The greatness of a nation and it’s moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated…I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by people from the cruelty of human kind.”
My boys, ages 9 and 11, love animals as much as I do. In order to give my children quality ‘fur time’ and experience the joys of living amongst animals, while trying to make sense of the sorrows associated with unwanted pets, we have been volunteering at our local animal shelter. My hope is that by spending time with animals in such an environment, they will learn lessons that will make them better stewards of animals than previous generations.
Like most public shelters ours is underfunded, understaffed, overcrowded and desperately in need of upgrades. Because of the conditions that persist there, despite a dedicated staff, there are days when we are so busy, the boys don’t get to sit and cuddle a puppy or kitten (the ultimate reward) before we have to leave; and though it has been a year since we started, they continue to want to go back. We clean cages, feed animals, do laundry, sterilize equipment, groom animals, walk dogs, vacuum carpets, pick up poop (yea, not my favorite task,) basically anything we see that needs to get done, we jump in and do.
I do not sugarcoat the experience. The work we do is dirty, stinky, physically demanding, and has elicited tears. Yet, the boys find reward in the adoring gaze of the animals, in the wagging of tails that beat and swish when they walk by, and in soft, warm fur they sink their hands into on occasion.
Of course, their favorite part of being at the shelter is interacting with the animals, even the ones who aren’t “pet shop pretty.” The boys have been exposed to every kind of dog imaginable while there. Some are old or sick, abandoned by their owners. There are those who have been, obviously, physically abused or have been neglected and starved; and some who may not show physical signs of abuse or trauma, but are just plain broken.
Hard truths about the failings and weaknesses of humans have become apparent to my young children in witnessing the sadness that persists at the shelter; and we have many long discussions about how and why animals end up at there. My children understand that there are legitimate circumstances such as when people lose their jobs and are no longer able to care for a pet; or when the owner of an animal dies. Harder for all of us, is to see a dog, so abused and distrusting of humans, it lashes out at us for merely appearing before it’s cage. We have seen the wounds inflicted on a “bait” dog, so they know that there are people who intentionally harm animals. Many tears were shed by all of us on that day. My children also know that people just lose interest in pets and they see the sadness and stress the animals suffer as a result.
Shelter life for animals is stressful at best. Imagine being locked in a concrete cage with 30 other stressed and barking (often nonstop) dogs. You smell the fear of all of the animals there; the sickness, and death. The animals sleep, eat and defecate in that small space. Scores of humans pass by the cages each day, poking, cooing and talking, but always leaving. And still, the animals (the majority of them) want to be close to us.
We are constantly amazed by the spirit of shelter animals. Most of them, no matter how horribly they have been abused, still trust that humans are good, and kind and caring. There are days when I wish I had that same undying faith and loyalty in mankind, but 30 minutes at the shelter on any given day reminds me that some humans are not worthy of such faith.
Fortunately, my boys are not so cynical. They simply want to spend time with animals. They find satisfaction in seeing a family consider a dog they have suggested, and joy in watching a cat, they spent time grooming, being adopted by a family. More often, they are fortified, as am I, simply by the feel of a puppy’s soft tongue on their hand, and the purr of a cat as it arches it’s back into their hand.
For my children, I hope the boys take away from their experiences at the shelter a better sense of how to care for creatures dependant on us humans. It’s a start to changing a bigger ideal, and that is enough, for now.
Animals are great teachers. Volunteering at the animal shelter helps my boys learn to balance the joy of caring for another living thing with the sorrow of life at the animal shelter. Hopefully, as they grow up, they will be kind and responsible stewards of all creatures.