Shelter Life: On Carrying Names We Will Never Forget

I decided to become a shelter volunteer after coming out of a prolonged period of caregiving in my life which ended in the loss of five much-beloved people and pets in just ten months time. The slate of my life had been nearly wiped clean in the wake of all that death, and the impact of those losses left me feeling more than a little out-of-step with the people around me. As a good friend of mine termed it, I was no longer a "Grief Virgin."

It was a bit of a relief to know that there might be others like me in this strange club that no one really wants to join, but I still needed to figure out what that meant in terms of how I was to live my life having become so intimate with mortality.

The big question was, "Where to now?" The short-term answer was, "Well, maybe I'll go walk some dogs while I figure that out."

And it was almost a perfect plan...

I did what any completely naive person looking to cuddle homeless puppies and kitties would do. I went to the place closest to my home. DuPage Animal Care & Control (DCACC) received my application and soon I was all ready to go roll around on the lawn for a couple hours each week with a gaggle of Shih Tzus.

Okay, that's not exactly what happened...

I confess, I signed up thinking DCACC was going to be Shelter Lite. It's not like you see packs of rabid dogs roaming the streets of Naperville. (I had no idea at that time about the distressing puppy mill situation there.) DCACC is in a small building in an affluent county with a nice expansive lawn in front so it all seems pretty serene from the outside.  I didn't know the least thing about 'open admission' or what could happen when you have a building that small serving a county that large. I had no idea that they also receive animals from surrounding counties and that at any given moment there are likely somewhere between 200 and 350 animals in that tiny building. I never really thought about how the animals arrived there. I was as green as they come.

Ah, for the heady days of my (shelter) youth.

And then an animal I fell in love with was euthanized.

Melba remains, to this day, one of the finest animals I have ever known; so intelligent and well-trained she could have done anything she wanted if she'd only been born with opposable thumbs.

The one thing she could not do was cope with living for months in a shelter cage.

She deteriorated mentally, her behavior changed, and she had to be pulled from the adoption floor. The decision to euthanize her was not taken lightly. Just say the name "Melba" to anyone who knew her and you will see the enduring pain of her loss.

Everyone who works in animal welfare has a name like that. The one that made it all real.

Had I still been a 'Grief Virgin' I may not have had the strength to go back.

But I wasn't. And I did, determined to learn all I could to help, to whatever degree possible, to help the next Melba.

It wasn't long before I realized that animal shelters are full to the brim with people (staff and volunteers alike), who can aptly be described as the Walking Wounded. Compassion fatigue and unprocessed grief are epidemic in this field.

That being said, I will tell you that most people who sign up to help also deeply love the work we do, so please don't let this next part scare you away from getting involved but you should also know this:

recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that animal rescue workers have a suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers. This is the highest suicide rate among American workers; a rate shared only by firefighters and police officers. The national average suicide average for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million. 

Animal shelters are spiritual classrooms like no other, magnifying experience and stretching the heart and mind in ways you can't imagine until you experience it yourself.

The emotional effects of this work (both the highs and the lows) will be among the ongoing topics at this blog, so I do encourage you to subscribe if it is of interest to you. In the meantime, if you are in this field, or other emotionally taxing line of work, and have wondered whether your caring is costing you, this post on compassion fatigue may prove valuable. There is also a beautiful article here from a young woman who is among those tasked with performing hundreds of euthanasias individually each year. (The article will also prove eye-opening for many wanting to learn more about "No Kill" shelters.)


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