The One Essential Quality All Animal Rescue Workers Need

Warning signs. I had a bad feeling about the adoption from the start. But there wasn’t a clear reason to deny the woman who came to our booth at a big adoption event and wanted Callie, a beautiful, large German Shepherd-type dog. All her answers to the counseling questions were acceptable; my gut just told me there was something flaky about her.

This feeling grew stronger after the adoption had been finalized and I escorted the woman to her car. She hadn’t brought a leash and, although we were in the parking lot of a large pet store, she declined my suggestion to go inside and buy a leash and collar. So I looped together two of our flimsy giveaway leashes into a slip lead, and the woman led Callie out of the adoption area, loosely holding the leash with just two fingers — one good pull and that strong dog would be free. As we passed among the booths of other rescue organizations, I had to keep telling the woman to keep Callie away from other dogs, whose friendliness couldn’t be assumed. Nevertheless she let Callie go nose-to-nose with every approaching animal.

Her car was a VW beetle, the back seat packed with boxes. Clearly no preparation had been made for bringing home a large dog. Somehow I wound up being the one to try to move the boxes into the trunk while the woman held Callie, and then, when they wouldn’t fit, I had to reload them into the back seat.

After Callie had hopped up into the passenger seat, her head almost touching the ceiling, I kissed her nose, silently wishing a better future for her than this beginning predicted.

As it turned out, a week later Callie was picked up running loose on a busy road, having jumped the woman’s broken fence. The owner reclaimed her, but soon afterward a neighbor reported that Callie was tied outside all the time, barking constantly. One of our animal services officers impounded the dog; the woman was given a summons and had to go to court. Callie was taken from her and returned to the shelter.

Awkward meeting. A few weeks later I arrived for my dog-walking shift and saw the same woman browsing along the row of kennels in one of the adoption wards. She spotted me and said, “Is that Mimi?”

Steeling myself for a difficult conversation I greeted her, and we stepped outside a moment to talk in a bark-free environment.

“I just wanted to say thank you,” she said to me. “You were so nice to me.”

That took me aback, because my thoughts about her, and what I had said to staff and fellow volunteers after the adoption event and Callie’s subsequent mishaps, had been anything but nice. “I’m sorry about what happened with Callie,” I said.

“Is she still here?” the woman asked, hope in her eyes.

“No, she got adopted.”

She shook her head, her face pained. “I really did love her. But she kept jumping over my fence. That officer who came to take her – he was so ugly to me. He acted like I was some kind of abuser.”

Then she really floored me by asking, “Do you think they would let me adopt another dog?”

Having had an animal impounded and taken from her by the court it was almost certain that she was now on the shelter’s permanent do-not-adopt list. I told her as tactfully as I could that I thought a future adoption through our facility was unlikely. Then I excused myself to go back to my dog-walking duties, and I wished her the best.

Later, as I led a dog into the big exercise yard, I saw the woman crossing the parking lot to her car, her head bowed and shoulders drooping, and I felt sorry for her, and ashamed of the uncharitable thoughts I had had about her.

Attitude adjustment. The one essential quality that all animal advocates and rescuers need to cultivate is compassion. Compassion for animals is, of course, fundamental. Few of us would be involved in the hard, messy, low- (or,no-) paying, stressful work of animal rescue and care if we were not motivated by love and a passion for helping these vulnerable beings.

It’s the human aspects of compassion that become more problematic. Animal care people — myself among them — see cruelty and neglect on a daily basis, and often gripe about the stupidity of the public: “They returned the dog after two days because they said he peed on a priceless oriental rug. They called him a ‘defective product.’” “They said their kid lost interest in the puppy once the ‘new’ wore off. They seemed to think that was a valid reason to bring her back!”

My fellow shelter volunteer, Shelley Bunting Pickett, recently posted on Facebook a call for compassion toward people who may try, but fail, to care for their pets as all of us wish they would: “Offer to help a neighbor provide for their animals. Spay/neuter information, fencing, dog houses, food, and/or education may help someone provide a better life for their dog. Please remember to be kind, some people are struggling but really do love their animals, and their animals love them.”

I thought about what I might have done for Callie’s hapless owner. Sensing at the outset that the dog might be too much for her, I could have tried to steer her toward a smaller, less active animal. A briefing on crate training could have prevented the woman’s misguided efforts to keep Callie “safe” by tying her up. Witnessing the woman’s inept handling of the dog, I could have recommended training classes to her, and suggested to the shelter that we follow up on the adoption more thoroughly than we usually do – and I might have volunteered to make the calls.

I should also have been more charitable about the owner in my thoughts and comments to other people. Negativity both poisons the spirit and has a demoralizing effect on those around us.

As I continue my work at the shelter I will try to make writer Henry James’s observation my guiding principle: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

Next: When Caring Hurts – Compassion Fatigue and How to Protect Against It

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