By Darlene Duggan
The animal shelter environment is a dynamic, and often times chaotic place. And working in an animal shelter frequently feels like a whirlwind—animals are in and out, always needing care, and there is rarely, if ever, time to take a break and regroup.
As I have said many times in this column: The reality for most shelters is that once an animal leaves their care, there is another waiting at the front door to take its place. So, it goes without saying that the average shelter worker sees many homeless animal faces pass by each week. And while each animal is no doubt important and cared for, after some time working in the field a majority of animals and experiences become a blur in the one’s memory.
But, regardless of how long one has worked in the field and how many blurred memories are retained, there are always some animals that will forever stick out in a shelter worker’s memory, especially those animals that you had your “firsts” with:
Your First Adoption
Few experiences in a shelter top the feeling of caring for a homeless animal and then connecting it with a new family through the adoption process. Luckily, I had the pleasure of doing this many times over, but I will always remember Olive. She was an eight week old brown tabby kitten, part of a litter of four other kittens. Her soon-to-be adopter was a graduate student at a local university; she had grown up with cats and was ready to adopt one of her own.
Olive’s adoption was the first that I facilitated and approved totally on my own after my training period was over. Although this was a slam-dunk adoption, I fretted about every last detail, and it felt so good to check off the “Approved” box on her application. One drawback of overseeing adoptions in a shelter is that one rarely gets to follow-up, so I never did know if Olive and her adopter worked out. But, years later I’m still confident that it was a perfect match!
Your First Adoption Return
Speaking of adoption follow-ups, if we do hear about post adoption progress it is, unfortunately, usually because something has gone wrong. I’ll never forget Snickers, a ten week old Shiba Inu mix. I had mixed feelings about the family that I adopted her to, but in the end decided to take a chance and let them take her, with firm instructions to return her if things were not working. In the end the puppy was too much for the family to handle, so they did return her. I felt awful for the little puppy and insisted on fostering her myself so I could find her a much better home.
Well, Snickers became Sabrina, and my first foster became my family’s second dog!
Your First Euthanasia
One of the downsides to shelter work is euthanasia. No matter how long you’ve been working in the field, euthanasia is never an easy task. The shelter I was working for also performed guardian-requested euthanasia—a service to the public to euthanize pets for free or a small donation—and Jimmy was my first.
He was a 15 year old Heinz 57 mixed dog, and he was carried into the shelter because he could not walk on his own. His entire family was there—mom, dad, and three teenaged boys; all were crying, none of them held back expressing their love for this dog.
When the euthanasia was over, his family explained that they had adopted Jimmy from this same shelter 15 years earlier when he was a rambunctious two month old puppy, and wanted to bring him back to the same shelter that had given this family such a wonderful companion. I was doing pretty good up to that point, holding myself together pretty well, but once I heard that story, I broke down crying along side this family. I will never forget Jimmy and his wonderful family!
Your First Shelter Birth
If you work in a large intake shelter, at some point an animal is going to come to your shelter pregnant. As the shelter manager, I was responsible for closing the shelter in the evening and also opening the shelter in the morning. One evening, we had taken in a stray cat at the very end of our shift. We were very pressed for time that evening so we quickly finished her paperwork and placed her in a holding kennel to fully process her in the morning (vaccinations, exam, etc). Well, when I opened up the shelter the next morning, the stray cat had given birth to one kitten overnight, and eventually delivered three more throughout the day. This was definitely one of the neatest things I was a part of at the shelter!
For all shelter workers, your first animals will always hold a special place in your memory and heart.
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.