Report from Animal Care Expo 2017, May 9-12, Fort Lauderdale, FL

At Animal Care Expo 2017 I felt deficient in only one major way: I did not have enough tattoos. In fact, I have none, whereas a great many of my 2000 or so fellow attendees were walking works of art, with bold designs on shoulders, arms, calves; delicate embellishments on ankles, necks or collarbones.

Kindly overlooking my boringly unornamented epidermis, the conferees could not have been more welcoming and collegial. Contrary to the usual stereotype of animal people as grumpy misanthropes, I encountered nothing but warmth and openness. There was a feeling of our all being in this together, all of us intensely focused on helping animals and eager to learn and share all we could to fulfill our individual missions more effectively.

Global gathering. Animal Care Expo is an annual convention sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and is in its 26th year. Held in a different city every year – Las Vegas in 2016, Fort Lauderdale this year, Kansas City in 2018 — it attracts animal welfare workers and volunteers from all over the world (I talked to people from Serbia and Australia), as well as a huge array of vendors of animal-related products and services. I have gone for the past two years, informally representing the Tennessee shelter where I volunteer, feeling very fortunate to have the ability to pay my own way and the support of my husband who knows how important this opportunity is to me. I am keenly aware of how many of my fellow shelter volunteers and staff members would give anything to go; I hope in this brief summary of the conference highlights to share some of what I learned.

The new volunteer coordinator from our shelter, Karen, also attended and we roomed together very congenially. As it turned out we also went to many of the same workshops, since both of us were primarily interested in the Engaging Volunteers track. The three-day conference program was broken up into ten tracks, or subject areas, including Building Leadership, Cat Welfare, Shelter Medicine, International Animal Issues, Reaching Underserved Communities, The “Five Freedoms” of shelter animals as standards for ensuring their welfare – and more. As I chose from the multiple workshops presented in the various tracks each day I often, wishfully, double- or triple-booked myself, but usually wound up choosing the volunteer-related seminars as most useful to my role in the shelter.

What Dogs Know. The conference began with a keynote speech by Victoria Stilwell, internationally renowned dog trainer. She highlighted dogs’ cognitive capabilities: adaptability, or a high tolerance for coping with novelty; communication – the ability to read humans’ intentions and convey their own intentions and wishes to us; empathy – recognizing and responding to the emotions of others; memory – storing past experience to make future choices; reasoning – problem solving; and cunning – knowing, for instance, just when to steal another dog’s toy. As evidence of dogs’ intellectual powers she showed videos of dogs who had been trained to drive cars and even fly planes (giving new meaning to the phrase “dog is my copilot”). One sobering point she made was that, given dogs’ excellent memories, fear and trauma are never erased from their brains. This awed me even more at the capacity of our shelter dogs to move past abuse and neglect, to love and trust again.

I could write pages on the useful and surprising things I learned throughout the three days, but the insights and facts that made the biggest impressions on me were the following:

In search of the ideal volunteer…. Much discussion took place on the subject of tension between volunteers and paid staff. The central issue seems to be that shelter employees are so overworked that they have little patience for eager volunteers who have no definite sense of what they should do, get in their way, ask lots of questions, and make more labor for the staff. There’s also often a generation gap, with shelter workers being young and volunteers being older and sometimes acting as though their experience and former career achievements should entitle them to respect.

The ideal volunteer, everyone agreed, is a positive, dependable self-starter who doesn’t step on toes. She’s willing to do whatever is helpful, is not squeamish, doesn’t take inappropriate liberties, and is willing to submit to the authority of the staff. She supports the shelter’s policies and doesn’t badmouth her own or other collaborative organizations. She has common sense and discretion. She can accept criticism without getting her nose out of joint or her feelings hurt.

There were some “volunteers from hell” stories shared: one free spirit who insisted on going barefoot in the wards (ick) and who was often found lying on the floor of a kennel spooning with a dog. Volunteers who disputed behavioral assessments or questioned euthanasia decisions. Volunteers who aired grievances on social media.

True confessions. All this made me realize how much I have grown as a volunteer. Once, in my early days three years ago, I walked into the vet clinic, just curious to see who was there recovering from surgery. (Now there are signs stating that the clinic is strictly off limits to volunteers.) There in one of the recovery kennels was a sweet dog whom I’d seen hugely pregnant just the day before. “Oh!” I said to the two vet techs who were bending over an unconscious cat on the steel operating table, “did Willow have her babies?” They exchanged a look. “The puppies didn’t make it,” one finally said tersely.

I knew from their attitudes not to press for more information but inferred that the puppies had been aborted, and soon afterward learned about the practice of “live spaying” that shelters are sometimes forced to resort to, removing both the mother’s uterus and her unborn offspring because there’s simply not the capacity to care for that many more dogs. Or cats.

On another occasion, when a dog I cared about had been returned by adopters for a third time, I tearfully blurted out to Katie, the head of canine care, “they’re not going to have to kill him, are they?” (I cringe to remember that now.) She turned to me, her normally sweet, open face stern. “Mimi, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have to understand that we have strict protocols and we have to adhere to them.” Ashamed, I told her I understood. Later I sought her out and apologized. She gave me a warm smile and said, “I knew how you felt. I was a volunteer here before I came on staff.” (Fortunately my canine friend went on to be adopted again and that time it “took.” And Katie and I are now on great terms.)

I know now, after these and other painful lessons, that my job is to support the staff in the hard work that they have to do, and in fact one of the workshop leaders suggested that there be a mission statement specifically for volunteers, in addition to the shelter’s overall mission statement, making just that point.

As for shelter employees, everyone agreed that staffers need to recognize that volunteers are critical to the functioning of the shelter – and, too, that volunteers may be, or become, donors. Staff members need to learn patience and tact, to give criticism directly (rather than expecting the volunteer coordinator to do it for them, after the fact). They should use the “praise/correct/praise” model, and take the time to consider what will help them in their work and to explain the task to the volunteer.

A no-judgment zone. I went “off track” for a session on Pet Rehoming, Retention and Relinquishment by the ASPCA’s VP of Research and Development, Dr. Emily Weiss, whose blog posts I read regularly and admire. The points she made were provocative: Animal care advocates would do well to dispense with the idea of “forever homes” as an absolute standard, replacing it instead with “good home.” The fact is, lives change and pets do have to be rehomed. She herself adopted a sweet dog but had to find a new place for him when her Jack Russell, “a real jerk” as she put it, made the new dog’s life miserable. “I knew that it would be easy to find a new owner for Carlton,” she said, “but nobody was going to take the jerk.” She placed Carlton with a psychotherapist friend who keeps him with her as she sees clients all day; he serves as a sort of therapy dog.

“We animal people can be very judgmental and make a lot of assumptions,” she said. “We should greet clients who come into our shelters to relinquish their dogs by saying, ‘Welcome. We’re so glad you came.’ Because they’re really trying to do the right thing. Not giving the dog away to whoever, or just turning it loose.

“And,” she added, “we should have a conversation with them and ask them if there’s any help we can give that will enable them to keep their pet. Spay/neuter assistance? Vet care? Food? Because when you think about it, that care could make all the difference – and will almost certainly be less costly to the organization than housing, feeding, vaccinating, etc. the animal for weeks or months. And we might also consider that if somebody has to relinquish a pet for medical reasons, because they can’t afford the pet’s treatment, we could give them the chance to get the animal back after treatment. That way, we have the chance to keep two hearts from being broken – the pet’s and the person’s. And we make room in the shelter for another dog or cat who needs it. And we enable the person who might have adopted the pet that was returned to its original owner to adopt another pet from the shelter. Wins all around.” Unconventional and deeply humane thinking.

On to the last workshops: How to read canine body language to perform successful dog meet and greets – how to safely transport dogs and cats long distances to shelters where they have a better chance of adoption (something I’ve recently become more involved with). By this time my brain felt like an oversoaked sponge.

But fortunately it was party time! Under swaying palm trees and strings of colored lights, beside a blue jewel of a swimming pool and a canal where some truly impressive private yachts gently bobbed, we animal people cut loose – a laughable ratio of some 1900 women to 100 men, but that didn’t matter. We drank and danced and, hollering over the booming DJ, compared experiences with one another, exhilarated by all we had learned and all the good we were going to go home and do. The display of tattoos at this gathering was impressive, but even more so were the passionate hearts proudly worn on every (figurative) sleeve.

Party animals, me (left) and Karen

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