One of the biggest ongoing disputes in the animal welfare world is who helps more. Volunteers routinely downplay the contributions of other volunteers because volunteer A doesn’t help exactly the same way as volunteer B. Assumptions get made, and accusations follow closely. People jockeying for position in the invisible hierarchy of whose help is more important often make snide attacks on each other in the effort to build their own credibility. Let’s take a look at some of those interpersonal issues.
Comment #1: “Well, I haven’t seen you at the shelter.”
Let’s put a little truth on the table, friends. The number of homeless animals is so high that we need a lot of help. We don’t have to like everyone who helps. We don’t even have to like everyone we work with directly, as long as they’re good at their task. And we don’t all have to help the same way. Some of the people who help the most may never, ever be seen at the shelter.
I know one amazing foster who specializes in animals with particular disabilities; this foster is rarely at the shelter, because he’s too busy caring for the large number of special needs animals in his home. Every one of his fosters goes to carefully selected homes that completely understand the needs of the animal they adopt. Another fellow volunteer who was on the receiving end of that exact snotty comment had literally just spent two days doing laundry at the shelter; the person making the accusation had definitely not seen her there…because the accuser had not been at the shelter.
Comment #2: “You don’t foster, so you don’t really care about the animals.”
Everyone has different limitations according to their circumstances. I myself won’t foster because I have a medically fragile dog with a seriously compromised immune system. I will not put him at risk. Period. Another volunteer I know is not fostering right now because of her own medical issues. Another had to take a break because her senior dog gets too distraught over having new animals in the house. Still another had a change in job circumstances that would have made it irresponsible for her to take on a foster at this time. It doesn’t mean we’re not dedicated. It means we have to choose other ways to help.
Comment #3: “You just like to cause trouble, and you break all the rules.”
Facts are facts, my friends. And rules are rules. If a shelter has clearly specified rules in place for volunteers, and the volunteers refuse to follow them, it can jeopardize the entire volunteer program. Depending on the rule, it can also put the animals, employees, and other volunteers at risk.
Don’t like a rule? Don’t understand a rule? I sympathize, because I rarely like rules, and some may seem awfully arbitrary. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a good reason. Those reasons may be to prevent the spread of disease, to reduce the likelihood of dog fights in the kennels, to minimize the chances of animals escaping, or even to prevent the public from being able to steal animals from the shelter. (Yes, it happens.)
When in doubt, ask for an explanation. Do not just ignore the rule, especially when the rule has to do with the safety of the animals. One exception: rules that try to silence volunteers and prevent them from exposing problems that put the animals or people at risk are illegal. If the explanation leaves you believing the rule is wrong, then work to change the rule.
If you don’t foster, and you don’t work at the shelter, what can you do?
There are so many ways to volunteer, no matter your personal circumstances. Fostering and working at the shelter are the two most obvious choices, but they are not right for everyone. Other options include answering online inquiries, doing food and supply drives, fundraising, helping with offsite adoption events, transporting animals to vet appointments and rescue groups, advocating for changes in laws or rules, educating the public, creating publicity materials, and helping to reference check adoption applications. These are just the first possibilities that come to me right now…they will vary by the needs of your particular organization.
The bottom line:
There are so many ways to help safely and productively. It’s easy to lose sight of that when we get buried under the day to day demands of whichever way to help we choose, and it’s easy to criticize those whose way of helping looks different from ours.
Please don’t be THAT volunteer. Instead, be the volunteer who knows there is a place for everyone in our world, even for the people we don’t like on a personal level, as long as they do a good job at their chosen task.
The animals need us all.