A comment from a reader has made me think about what it takes, in terms of emotional fortitude, to work in the animal rescue field.
If you read, “The Golden Fleece”, on this blog, you know that I walked dogs and wrote dog descriptions for the website at our big local shelter. I went through training for both things, more for the walking than the writing, and after the walk training came a period of mentorship.
I had a wonderful mentor–my guess is she’s one of the best dog people and most experienced walkers there, and probably the best. I think the volunteer coordinator assigned this particular mentor to me because I was already a thorn in her side (the volunteer coordinator’s, that is), because she told me I’d be working with that mentor almost as if it were going to be a punishment or a test of some kind. But if the volunteer coordinator were hoping the mentor would chew me up and spit me out, it didn’t happen. True dog people can recognize each other right away, and she told me early on that I was excellent. But the first day, I thought I might have blown it. I’ll never forget that day. My mentor took me back into the cage area for the first time to show me what I’d be doing. She opened a door, and a wall of sound rose up to meet us, every dog barking at the top of its lungs, “Get me out! Get me out! Pick me! Please, I hate it in here!”, and I could not keep from crying. I suppose it was the first time I’d heard it. I tried to stay behind my mentor so she wouldn’t see me, but when I didn’t answer her (somehow she could tell I hadn’t answered, although ya got me how she could tell, with all that noise), she turned around and caught me crying, and was very surprised. “If this is going to be too much for you, you shouldn’t do it”, she said, and I, very afraid that I wouldn’t even get my chance to help, shook my head, held up my finger as if to say, “Just give me a minute to collect myself”, and when I could speak, I said, “No, it’s OK, I can do it”, and I vowed to keep it together no matter what. I choked out, “It was just…they shouldn’t be in cages like this.” She answered nicely, agreeing with me, but I thought, “This poor woman must be thinking, ‘Why the hell did they give me this wuss to train? This softie who thinks, oh, what a cute doggie, but can’t even get past the door?'”
I know now–and actually found out quite soon that same day–that she must not have been thinking anything like that. And in fact, that breakdown of mine might have been what told her that I was, and am, a dyed-in-the-wool dog fanatic.
Because a few minutes later, after we had walked an adorable Pit Bull who’d been discarded in a dumpster and saved from starvation and death only because a passerby heard its weak little whimper (this young dog had some issues, not surprisingly, and my mentor was the only person allowed to walk it, at that point), and she’d seen that I had a confident and comfortable relationship with even a dog known to be standoffish, she threw me a bone. 😉
I knew she was mentally referring to my crying. She said, as if she were in the middle of a sentence in a silent conversation we’d been having, “Because, you see, the shelter is a step up for some dogs”.
And that may seem very obvious to you, but it hadn’t been, to me, and it changed my world. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of it, and I’m sure I’ll write about it again and again here. “Of course,” I thought, “the shelter is a huge step up for a dog who came from inside a dumpster and from an owner who would put her into one!” And I realized that, for that dog, my crying made no sense–I should have been rejoicing.
I began turning that idea around in my head, right away. And I thought, “I don’t have to try to save the world here, which I could never do, anyway; all I need to do is to try to give each animal I connect with a step up.” For some animals–for instance, the probably feral cat I found slinking around a dumpster behind a theater in a small town where my orchestra was performing–that step up was just a couple of cans of wet cat food I bought, opened into a take-out tray, and set down near the dumpster. That was the only thing it was in my power to do for that particular animal. On the other end of the spectrum is an animal for whom the step up is what I consider its last and best step up–a permanent home with our family (although, for certain pets, there are homes which would be even better than mine, and I don’t forget that). And there’s an animal to represent every step in between.
Somehow, my mentor’s words that day, and the new idea she planted, have freed me from worry about the fact that I can’t do enough. If you focus on helping every animal-in-need you encounter to get up that next step, it’ll be as full-time a job as the one you go to to earn the salary which frees you to keep getting those animals up their steps. Happy helping, dear reader who made me think of this, and happy helping to everyone else, too.