Shelter Work: What’s Faith Got to Do With It?

The shelter where I volunteer had arranged for a visit by a group of homeschooled girls, members of a Christian youth service group similar to the Girl Scouts. My fellow volunteer Lucille Watkins and I agreed to host them; I would tell them about how we care for the dogs and Lucille would represent her beloved cats.

The girls arrived, some ten of them ranging in age from eleven to fourteen. Three of their mothers accompanied them – friendly women, one wearing a pink sweatshirt with “Believe!” spelled out on it in silver sequins.

Lucille deferred to me to do the introductions. I told them about the shelter, how we are contractually obligated by the city to take in any domestic animal, how we handle over 6,000 animals each year and adopt out around 2,000. They didn’t ask what happens to the rest; some are transferred out to other rescue groups and shelters – but others, too sick or aggressive to put up for adoption, are humanely euthanized.

Though I didn’t burden them with that fact, I did find myself compelled to tell them something I hadn’t planned. “Working here can be joyful, but it can also be heartbreaking,” I said. “As people of faith I know you’ll understand when I say that sometimes I feel the only thing I can do for some of these animals is pray for them. Turn them over to God.” And to my dismay I found myself tearing up. I felt the girls’ curious, surprised eyes fixed on me.

Sweet Lucille came to my rescue. “I pray, too,” she said. “I pray that they’ll all find good homes.”

The mother in the pink “Believe!” sweatshirt spoke up. “Our God is a loving God,” she said. “He created all these beautiful creatures and He has them all in his care.”

By this time I had gotten my emotions under control and we went on with the day’s activities.

Faith is an essential part of my service at the shelter, and not just religious or spiritual faith. First, I have faith in the dogs themselves – that there is in them a core of essential good-dogness that has made them our loyal companions since the distant days when we were sharing bones by the fire in our caves. Dogs have evolved to want to please us humans; if a dog is mean or violent or a fear biter, I believe that human mistreatment, or some internal illness or pain, has made him act in a way contrary to his essential nature.

I also have faith in the shelter’s staff. When I open a kennel to take a new dog out, I trust that the staff has behaviorally assessed this dog and determined that she is neither aggressive nor so fearful that she’ll bite me. Three years of taking out innumerable dogs without serious incident has strengthened this confidence in the hardworking, compassionate professionals who keep us volunteers and the public as safe as possible.

I have faith in my fellow volunteers – incredibly selfless people who give so much, often at great sacrifice, to help the animals find homes and make their lives in the shelter more bearable.

And I have faith in the adopters who take our dogs home. Or, let’s say I try to; all too often that faith has been shaken when I have seen dogs returned within mere days of their adoption, long before they could be expected to make the huge adjustment from the shelter to a strange environment with new people, and often for trivial reasons. But with each new adoption I want to believe that the people will love this dog and give him the best care they can for the rest of his life. And if that care differs from what I might consider optimal, I have to remind myself that dogs are remarkably adaptable and can thrive, as long as there are the basics of food, shelter and affection.

I have gained faith in myself. Though I’m older than most other volunteers and all of the staff at the shelter, I have proved that I can handle the big, strong, rowdy animals. I trust myself to keep them safe on our walks and on outings away from the shelter. I have learned that I can do things I would not have previously believed myself capable of, such as dealing with all kinds of smells and sights and icky things to pick up. Or regularly driving a huge cargo van filled with dogs and cats along a busy interstate to a shelter in another city two hours away, where our animals will have a better chance of getting adopted. Or loving, and letting go.

That last is the most challenging aspect of shelter service: getting attached to dogs, watching them walk out the door with their new families and knowing that if all goes as it should I’ll never see them again. But much tougher than that is when a friend has to be euthanized. The stress of long term confinement can cause good dogs to develop bad habits or health problems that doom their chances of adoption. If a rescue or foster partner doesn’t quickly come to the distressed dog’s aid, he or she has to be put down.

I draw on faith to help me through those times: faith that, as my wise and dog-loving sister says, “euthanasia is not just for bad dogs. It’s a blessing for good dogs who will never find a forever home.” I console myself with the knowledge that their lives were sweetened by the love of us shelter workers who walked them and cared for them and cuddled and played with them and gave them treats. And that their time on earth had meaning, because we loved them and won’t forget them. And that they knew kindness to the end.

As for something more than that – the Rainbow Bridge, eternal life, a better world where ultimate justice prevails and where we will meet again all those we have loved and lost, human and animal — I waver, I doubt.

The doubt was especially acute when a favorite of mine “went down.” Over the long months that Purcell, an energetic young Lab mix, had spent in the shelter, he had grown frantic in his kennel, constantly spinning and barking. The last time I took him out he bolted and knocked me into a concrete wall, banging my head hard. The staff couldn’t handle him, much less promote him to prospective adopters. Knowing of my attachment to him, Kerry McBride, the shelter’s executive director, had kindly called me to let me know that she and the behavioral team had had to make the painful decision to euthanize him.

On my first day back at the shelter after his death, my heart was weighing me down. As I trudged along the pathway to the adoption wards to begin my day’s dog walking, I passed by the glass door that led into Kerry’s office. She saw me and came outside. “I’m sorry about Purcell,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said. “I know everybody did everything for him that they could. And now he’s at peace, in heaven.” And then my discouragement slipped out. “If there is a heaven…”

“Oh, there is,” she said with complete assurance. “And all dogs go there. I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t believe that.”

And just like that, my heart lifted. Some kinds of faith are founded on provable things, but others are not rational, not verifiable in this world. In that moment I thought, why not choose to believe as Kerry does? Who can contradict her?

All dogs go to heaven. Works for me.

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