As not-for-profit organisations all animal shelters require volunteers to help with the day-to-day running of things. Volunteer animal attendants generally help out in a number of ways; daily cleaning of pens, litter trays and food bowls, setting up clean pens ready for the next tenant, feeding, grooming and walking/socialization of animals. It’s rewarding, but be prepared to do some repetitive, physically demanding and messy work. Remember there is always work to be done, so ask an employee what you can help with if whenever you some down time.
Walking dogs and socializing with the animals is probably the most important (and the best) part of these roles. Unfortunately shelter workers rarely get the time in their day to socialize with the animals. To make the most of a shift always ask shelter staff which animals they’d like you to spend more time with. These won’t always be your first choice – they’re often the animals that have been there a long time, or that need to get more confident around people before they will be adopted. For shy animals remember to go slowly – it’s about giving them as positive an experience as possible so if they’re too scared to leave the pen or sit with you then don’t make them.
At smaller or regional shelters you may be working across the shelter; with cats, dogs and any other animals in the shelters care (which generally include rabbits, guinea pigs and the occasional chicken or ferret). The larger shelters will generally have you stick to one area (either cats or dogs) per shift, which will allow you to work with the species you have the most experience with or steer away from animals you have allergies to. Volunteers are needed every day of the week and shifts are generally three to four hours long. Most shelters will require you to be able to attend a weekly or fortnightly shift for at least six months. At a minimum there is usually an information event you must attend before your first shift and some shelters require a police check (at your own expense) in order to volunteer.
Not everyone is suited to this kind of role. Before taking on a position like this consider whether you agree with the shelters policies and how you will be affected seeing the animals in this environment every week or fortnight.
Shelters are doing an amazing service but the care the animals get simply doesn’t compare to that of living in a home with a loving family. Sadly, some animals are in shelters for a long time and some volunteers can’t cope with seeing the same sad eyes week after week. You will also hear the sometimes heartbreaking stories of the animals past. They may have been victims of cruelty or neglect. They may have been surrendered for reasons that make you angry, like adopting a younger pet that doesn’t get along or shedding too much hair. What ever the reason, some people find shelters to be too emotional to visit every week.
I like to remember that the alternative is worse – a life on the street is never a good one for these animals and they could be threatening precious native wildlife. If you do decide to volunteer as an animal attendant remember what a huge difference you are making to the lives of the animals.
If you like the idea of volunteering with dogs, but not with the heartbreak of shelter work you may like to look into volunteering with Guide Dogs Victoria instead. All the fun of pooper-scooping and poochy smooches without the sadness of shelter life.
To find out more about volunteering at a shelter check out their website. I’ve compiled a few from around Melbourne:
RSPCA Victoria, with shelters across Victoria including Burwood East, Peninsula, and Epping
Lort Smith in North Melbourne, where you will have to attend an information session and then obtain a police check
Save-A-Dog-Scheme in Glen Iris (cats and dogs)
Pets Haven in Woodend
Animal Aid in Coldstream
The Cat Protection Society in Greensborough (cats only)
Share your stories of wonderful shelter animals you’ve met in the comments below!