When I started volunteering at a local animal shelter this year, I thought I’d be doing a good deed for some lost little creatures. Little did I know what else.
Like my father, I was raised in a rural culture where four-legged animals are an integral part of life. They’re co-inhabitants of the same space, not exotic things to visit. Walking to the school bus winter mornings, I’d see the footprints of wild neighbors – bunnies, deer, raccoons – going about their lives in our shared space.
At 7, I did not get breakfast until I’d fed my horse, dog and cats. Most of our pets came from shelters. So, when the decay of print newspapers caught up with my 50-year career, it seemed natural to invest some free time there.
ShelterontheHill.org and its corps of caring colleagues in Lebec accepted me as a TLC volunteer, simply providing pettings, playtimes and cuddles to four-legged guests. Like humans in care facilities, despite good meals and care, they get institutionalized, depressed.
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So I visit in off hours when, I figure, loneliness might find fertile soil in frightened minds. I just sit on a little stool. I talk. They sniff. We become pals.
As in human families, touches are the language of love. Scratches. Pats. Eventually, cuddles. Many shake uncontrollably at first.
Here’s an amazing thing: After the introduction protocol by nose, these little dogs are remarkably open and friendly.
I can only imagine the neglect and abuse they’ve endured; many get abandoned in parking lots. They carry wounds and signs of neglect. Yet, at the slightest sign of affection, the creatures I work with respond in kind.
They don’t know much about games yet. But part of the plan is to socialize them for a family life soon. Some have medical issues requiring treatment and long care. But my patient colleagues invest countless hours teaching manners, obedience and, above all, trust.
Imagine my surprise when on return visits, the lost ones no longer hide. I swear they recognize me. They get excited, barky, can’t wait for the touching. Truth be told, neither can I.
They know which pocket has the treats. If they see an idle hand, they know a nudge starts the petting. And they learn my lap is a safe zone. The highest compliment is when they doze off there.
All rescues need volunteers; just Google “animal shelter” with your ZIP code. Friends claim they can’t volunteer because they’d want to adopt everyone. It is tempting. We did take in one toothless Westie to join our border collie.
But I’ve learned changing a discarded life only takes a little love and time. Shelter on the Hill finds homes for scores of dogs and cats every year. We celebrate when Allie, Darth or Buckley graduate to forever homes.
Here, I thought I was doing these lost animals a favor. Now, this year I’ve learned I actually get back way more than I can possibly give. Payment comes in licks.
Andrew Malcolm, who began adopting shelter pets in 1951, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @AHMalcolm.