People often ask how I can handle volunteering at a high-kill animal shelter. The truth is, I don’t handle it very well at all and I’m not even sure that it’s possible to. If you love animals, the emotional toll of volunteering at a high-kill shelter is nothing short of devastating. I often hear other pet photographers say “I refuse to volunteer my services to a high-kill shelter because I do not believe in what they do”. As a volunteer at Baltimore’s only open admission animal shelter, I can honestly say there is no where else I’d rather volunteer. Don’t get me wrong – by no means do I ‘support’ the practices of a high-kill shelter. But how can you penalize the animals who have had the bad fortune of ending up there? It’s not their fault and I don’t think it’s fair to turn my back on the animals that need me the most. By volunteering there, I know I am making a difference in the lives of these animals.
Let’s get something straight – killing animals is never going to be okay with me and it pains me every single time I hear that one of “my” dogs is killed at the shelter. These open admission shelters are required by law to accept any and every animal that is brought to them, regardless of whether they have the space to house them or not. That means, often times, they have to put down animals simply for space. It’s tragic, horrifying, disgusting, and heartbreaking… but it’s reality. I know it would be much easier to turn my back on this problem – a problem that is faced by the shelters that serve every major city in America. Only when I decided to open my eyes and my heart to this sickening reality, I finally found a true purpose in the work that I do at BARCS and my crusade for these animals began.
Volunteering at the shelter isn’t easy and recently, it has become even harder to cope with than I could ever imagine. The sheer volume of animals the shelter is forced to take in each day is overwhelming and for every dog that comes in, one must be killed so that there is room for the next. Lately I’ve struggled with the term “euthanasia”. It’s the term they use around the shelter, but I don’t really like using it because of what it actually means. Euthansia is a term that refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering. Very rarely are the dogs at the shelter in true pain or suffering. Many have extremely treatable issues – issues that would be considered ‘non-issues’ in the real world. But they have to start picking somewhere.
I’ll admit it. I get upset and angry about each and every dog’s death at my shelter – especially ones that I’ve formed bonds with, which is a good number of them. I cuss, I cry, I yell, I shake… and I don’t see anything wrong with that. That is how I grieve each death and I know I share this pain with many of my fellow dedicated volunteers. Together, we pull through. We are often asked how can we possibly keep doing this to ourselves? Why do we keep fighting this seemingly losing battle? Somedays, I honestly don’t have an answer for those questions. Some days I want to quit, give up, throw in the towel. But then, I think about all the dogs we have saved and all the dogs that still need us. I think of Yogurt’s precious freckled nose or Karl’s beady little eyes. I think of the pure joy we all shared when Sandy, Roxy, Amelia + Hammie were finally adopted. I remember the happiness we felt when Finn, Pinky, Sweet Pepper + Tex got out of the shelter and into a safe foster home. Sometimes we do get a win and that is what keeps me going. I still believe in what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I believe I can make a real difference in the lives of these animals. I believe I can be their voice and their advocate. I believe I can make their life better, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. I believe that I have a duty to honor their lives (and their deaths) by pushing harder for changes at the shelter. I believe in this cause with everything I have and I’m truly honored to have a wonderful group of dedicated dog lovers by my side, helping to fight on the behalf of the voiceless.
So when someone asks me why I volunteer at a high-kill shelter, I can say proudly and with absolute certainty that it’s because I know I can make a difference there. I know I can save actual lives there. I know I’m among an elite group of passionate, dedicated, amazing, wonderful volunteers who care about these dogs and this cause as much as I do. Most of all, I do this because I love these dogs like they are my own and they deserve to have someone on their side. These dogs did not choose to end up at the shelter. They did not ask to be born into a negligent or abusive situation. They cannot plead for their lives – they can’t say “please don’t pick me to die”. They can’t comprehend why they end up there and they can’t understand what they need to do to avoid being picked for that dreaded trip to the Rainbow Room. They can’t help it if they catch kennel cough or demodex while at the shelter. They can’t potty train themselves when they only get out once a day (if that). They can’t help it if they get diarrhea or a respiratory infection from breathing in the putrid odor of urine and feces all day. They need us. I want to help these dogs have a second chance at a happy ending. I want to show them what compassion and love feels like. I want them to feel the sun on their skin and breathe fresh air, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. I want to save a life. These dogs deserve that, and so much more. And that is why I volunteer at high-kill shelters.