It’s time for my weekly volunteering shift at Oakland Animal Services. As I walk in, I hardly recognize that badly matted poodle we took in last week, who has been shaved and now sits up front in the adoption ward, eagerly greeting visitors. . . . I hear a family cooing over their new fluffy orange kitten. . . . Hey, there’s a goat in the courtyard! . . . At the front desk, a woman cries with joy and relief when she is reunited with her lost dog. . . . Five baby bunnies have been left in our night drop box. These moments capture a pretty typical day at OAS.
Five years ago, when I signed up to volunteer, I didn’t know that OAS was an open-access municipal shelter. My intentions were simple: I wanted to spend time with dogs and to give back to the community. I thought that volunteering would be about playing with dogs and puppies. After awhile I began to notice the staggering number of new animals that come in through the doors of OAS and the challenges that result from that overpopulation. As an open-access shelter, OAS is the only facility in Oakland that takes in any and all animals, no matter what breed or species, age or condition. Then it’s our job—the staff and volunteers—to care for them and find them good homes, whether that’s adopting them out directly or transferring them to one of the many private rescue groups we work with.
Today I think of OAS as ground zero of saving animals’ lives. I’m constantly amazed by how much OAS accomplishes. Unlike nonprofit, limited access shelters, OAS is a city agency that has the additional mandate of responsibilities such as picking up sick, dead, or stray animals in Oakland; licensing animals; investigating dog bites and potentially-dangerous-dog cases; and gathering evidence in abuse cases and seizing animals that are being cared for inadequately. OAS does all of this while managing hundreds of animals under one roof and working within a tight budget in a city struggling with a deficit. (It reminds me of that quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.)
While I started volunteering because of the animals, I kept coming back because of the people. I had wanted to give back to the community, but I’m the one who has benefited from the amazing group of dedicated people at OAS. It includes incredibly generous volunteers and staff who give so much of their time to both the animals and to each other. They give me the courage and support to keep going when times are tough.
It’s not always easy volunteering at an open-access shelter where euthanasia is a sad reality. We mourn for the lives that we can’t save: dogs who come in covered with scars from dog fighting, so undersocialized that they cannot relate to other dogs or to people; roosters seized from fighting busts who have nowhere to go. One thing I’ve always felt good about is knowing that there is no timeline for how long an animal will stay with us. Some of the cuter or more unusual breeds get adopted out in a week; others stay with us for over a year and become volunteer favorites.
For me, I’ve found that the best way to cope with the sadness of these shelter realities is to fight on in their memory, to work even harder to help the new animals that are coming in our doors every day. If you have an animal companion, then you know how much animals help keep you rooted in the present moment; it’s a gift. The shelter is a stressful place to live: animals do not get the space and attention that they need to fully express themselves. That’s why letting a dog out of his kennel to run free and be a dog makes a world of difference in his life. That’s the difference that we make. That’s why we are here.
Every time I walk into OAS I see this plaque at the entrance, inscribed with a quote by Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” It reminds me why I keep doing this. Homeless animals are part of our community, and caring for them is a community responsibility, from the most passive end of the spectrum—paying taxes that fund OAS—to the most active—volunteering.
When I started volunteering, I had no idea what I was getting into. Yes, my work has made a difference in the lives of animals, and it’s given back to the community—just as I had hoped—but the biggest difference, the unexpected difference, is that it’s also changed my life. It’s made me a better person: a better dog handler; an advocate for animals; a member of an active, compassionate community. I am proud to be part of OAS.
— Yvonne, dog volunteer