Animal Shelter Volunteer

Insider Info

When a little dog named Charlie Brown arrived at the animal shelter in Boston, Massachusetts, he was in rough shape. Struck by a car, the Jack Russell terrier was found in some backyard bushes. His back legs were badly injured. Fortunately, the homeowner called animal rescue and he was rushed to the shelter.

While he was recovering from his injuries, young volunteers dropped in to the shelter to visit Charlie. Other volunteers made and sold fridge magnets to help pay for his medical expenses.

Thanks to the support he received, he's doing well. People are lining up to adopt him, says Debby Vogel. Vogel is the manager of educational and volunteer programs at the shelter.

"Volunteers -- I don't think we could do it without them," Vogel says. "For every one staff member, we have about four volunteers. I think we do a great job, but I think we do so much of a better job with the volunteers." The large shelter employs 95 staff and nearly 400 volunteers.

Animal shelters rescue and protect animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, even farm animals. Many centers also try to control pet populations with spay and neuter programs. Some animals in the shelter are strays. Others have been abused or abandoned. Many are brought to shelters because the owners can no longer care for them.

Shelters rely heavily on volunteers to help with animal care and paperwork. At some shelters, volunteers make up 90 percent or more of the team.

In many cases, people under age 18 are not permitted to volunteer directly with the animals. That's because stray or troubled animals can pose a danger to young people, which is a liability for shelters. Still, many shelters offer special programs for teens, encouraging them to get involved in some way.

At the Animal Rescue League of Boston, teens aged 13 to 16 can attend Mutts-n-More. It's a supervised group program. For several hours on Friday evenings, 15 students walk dogs, read to shy cats and rabbits, and handle kittens to help socialize them. They've also built fences for horses and painted the office at the shelter's pet cemetery. The program is extremely popular with teens.

But volunteering at animal shelters is popular among all age groups -- from students to stay-at-home parents to retirees. The Boston shelter receives 50 volunteer applications per week. While many people enjoy interacting with the animals, many other volunteer opportunities exist.

Volunteers may photograph the animals ready for adoption, for the shelter's website. Others clean cages or do laundry -- a big help to staff. Volunteers are also needed to process donations, file adoption contracts and enter animals' information into computers. Some volunteers call new pet owners to see how things are going. Others serve as foster parents, taking animals into their own homes until the animals are adopted.

At the PAWS Chicago shelter, teens are encouraged to make dog and cat adoption baskets for new pet owners. The baskets may include brushes, leashes, dog toys and homemade treats. Students are also challenged to collect essential items for the shelter -- litter boxes, bowls, blankets and more.

A new program at PAWS allows people as young as 12 to volunteer with the animals, as long as their parents accompany them.

There's a lot of student interest, says Sharyn Hosemann, volunteer program manager at PAWS. "I see these kids and they keep coming back weekend after weekend with their parents... they're smiling from ear to ear... I just think it's the amazing power that animals have to bring us all together in a positive way."

Alyssa Kane's whole world revolves around animals. When not in school, she works part time at a local veterinary clinic. She also volunteers at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. There she trains dogs, bathes animals and cleans barn stalls. Even at home, her work with animals doesn't end. She serves as a foster parent to kittens.

"I've always loved animals," says Kane. "It's just natural for me. As soon as I could volunteer, I started volunteering." For her work, Kane was recognized with a 2008 Humane Teen of the Year award by the U.S. Humane Society.

Kane hopes to pursue a career as an animal behaviorist, working with aggressive or anxious animals at a shelter.

"I love the variety," says Kane of her work at the shelter. "There's a new thing happening every day here." She adds, "Any little thing helps -- you can do paperwork or even laundry... even sitting with a dog that just needs some love is 100 percent helpful."

When two 17-year-old cats arrived at the humane society where she volunteers, Angela Wu worried they wouldn't find a new home. The cats' owners had passed away, and the elderly cats were left homeless. "You never like to see an animal who doesn't have a home," Wu says. Wu has volunteered with the society for nearly 10 years.

Someone did adopt the pair of cats. Wu says it's the satisfaction of seeing animals get a new home that drives her to volunteer. She says it's also a great learning opportunity. "Even people who have pets, they end up learning a whole lot more than they probably would have expected -- dog behavior, dog body language... why it's important to spay and neuter your pet."

Manu Puri started volunteering at the PAWS Chicago shelter because he wanted to be around dogs, but he didn't have time for his own dog. Seven years later, he's still an avid volunteer. He walks dogs, helps out at fundraising events and sorts through medical records. He has even dressed up as Santa Claus for the cause.

"Volunteers are dedicated," says Puri. "They're here for a reason. It's not a job to them. It's kind of a purpose. They really have the interest of the animals at heart."

How to Get Involved

Contact your local animal shelter to find out about age restrictions, and what you can do. No special education or training is required for most animal shelter volunteer work. Many shelters provide orientation and training to new volunteers.

Volunteers should wear comfortable, casual clothing and closed-toe shoes.


Humane Society of the United States

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)

Find a shelter near you

Volunteer Match
Find volunteer possiblities in your area

Animal Rescue League of Boston
Learn more about Boston's animal shelter

PAWS Chicago
Learn more about Chicago's animal shelter

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