When people hear that I work with homeless animals, I often get asked, “How did you end up working at an animal shelter?” In the event that any reader of this blog is considering a career in animal sheltering, I’d love to share my story. I have to caution you though, it’s going to be a challenge for me to sum it up in a few hundred words; my career is so precious to me and brevity may not be my ally for this post!
My “career” in animal welfare really began right after I graduated from college. After years of rigorous academics and athletic pursuits, I suddenly found myself with a ton of free time on my hands. So, I signed up for a volunteer orientation session at my local animal shelter—the same shelter where my family went the day before Christmas back when I was in third grade to adopt the most wonderful and loving chocolate Lab mix the world has ever seen. I was using this volunteering gig as a way to give back to the organization that gave me such a beloved companion growing up, as well as to placate my interest in working with animals. You see, at this time I thought I was on my way to medical school…MCATS were taken, applications were in the mail, and I was enrolled in a quick masters program in Public Health to keep myself busy before med school began. The path was set; I was going to be an MD. But, I kept thinking about those animals at the shelter and asking myself questions like, “Why do I have more fun at the shelter than I do thinking about medicine?” Around that time, my husband and I also adopted our first dog, the beloved Sidney Einstein, and my experience raising and training her solidified my love and passion for homeless animals. Yet, I still resisted my urges to switch career paths.
Fast-forward a few months: I was sitting in a biostatistics course and making idle chit-chat with the student next to me. Turns out, she was a veterinarian and was getting her Public Health degree to compliment her work with animals. WHAT?!?! People can use Public Health degrees in the animal welfare business? It had never dawned on me until that woman casually mentioned she was doing it. I remember racing home after class that night and completely rearranging my life—within a few hours, I had let go of my dreams of becoming a doctor and opened my heart to the direction I had been pulled towards all along: Working with shelter animals.
I accepted an entry-level position at the animal shelter I had been volunteering with, and as they say: “The rest was history.” Never for a minute have I regretted choosing this career. It is challenging, rewarding, exhilarating, and just plain fun. For any readers out there thinking about a career in animal welfare, I encourage you to take the leap and explore all the field has to offer. Start by attending local or national animal sheltering conferences or expos, or sign up for a volunteer orientation with your local shelter.
But reader, please also beware—for those who work in animal welfare, the second most frequently asked question is: “I could never work at an animal shelter, it’s much too sad. How can you do it?” Over time, you will find your own answer to this question, but in the meantime, I can tell you mine:
Sure, I have seen some pretty sad and awful stuff around the shelter and in the field, but I have also seen some pretty incredible things too. Working in an animal shelter you will have the absolute privilege of seeing families created for the first time. Nothing can top the feelings you experience when you see a family walk into your shelter with anticipation on their faces looking for a new dog or cat to love and call their own, helping them walk through your adoption rooms until the perfect animal catches their eye, and both person and animal are forever changed when they look at each other and say, “I choose you.” They walk out of the facility with broad smiles and wagging tails, and you know at that time you are part of something truly special and miraculous. The twenty bad things you may have seen that week will be far outweighed by that special moment of the new family leaving your doors.
Have any questions? I would love to talk personally to any burgeoning animal welfare professionals—feel free to contact me via a comment below or directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For many years, Darlene worked behind the scenes at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago–overseeing volunteer programs, problem solving shelter issues, and laboring tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Her bi-weekly column, The Shelter Voice, will explore the complex concepts surrounding animal rescue and welfare usually reserved for discussions amongst those at the very front lines of the industry. She hopes to broaden the understanding and education of shelter supporters so they can act as well-informed advocates for the cause and help spread the adoption and rescue message throughout their community.
To read more from Darlene, check out her Blog–Shelter Report.