Nurturing New Beginnings

Mutt is an unfortunately named 70-pound, dusty brown, blue-eyed dog. He struggles against me while searching for a way out of the tub, splashing soapy water onto my red shirt. If he understood this bath means he’s going to an adoption event, he’d be more cooperative.

I’d only been volunteering at the Humane Educational Society in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for a few weeks before helping bathe dogs for the first time in preparation for an adoption event. The other three women helping have been bathing dogs every second and third Saturday of the month for a couple of years. They work with an efficiency and confidence that I haven’t built up yet, but that’s one of the reasons I wanted to push my comfort zone and volunteer at an animal shelter like HES.

I became a volunteer for a few other, more common reasons: I wanted to give back to my community, be a part of a group that’s doing important work, and I have personal experience with abused and neglected dogs because both of my own dogs were adopted from rural shelters – so it was the natural fit.

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The majority of people I pass in bright red volunteer shirts while walking through the kennels are women, which isn’t surprising in animal-related charity work. Some have trained to help with the cats that fill one wing of the building, while others are like me and strictly dog people. All interests and skill sets are welcome to fill the many areas of need the shelter faces.

A Southern Epidemic

Living in the South, all the volunteers have firsthand experience with the heartbreaking epidemic of mistreated and abandoned animals in our communities.

Overcrowded animal shelters and high euthanasia rates are a distinctly Southern tradition. In most Northern states, animal shelters have empty kennels and wait lists for families who want to adopt a rescued pup. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in the South.

Many counties have minimal or no restrictions on loose animals. In these rural communities, it’s common for dogs to roam freely and even more common that they’re unaltered. Families struggle or don’t see the need to pay for expensive surgeries for their pets, or owners want “just one” litter of puppies from their dog, but then she quickly becomes pregnant again afterwards. I’ve met men who refused to have their buddy Brutus neutered because they didn’t want to emasculate him or make him “less of a man.” Even after they’ve been told about the risk involved with unwanted litters, aggression issues with other dogs and shorter lifespans in unaltered animals.

Unwanted puppies, abandonment, and other factors contribute to the overcrowding epidemic that shelters like HES are trying to fight. Each animal that comes through their doors are spayed or neutered before being adopted. HES offers low-cost vaccine clinics and microchipping so it’s easier to find lost pets. Like many shelters and rescue groups in the South, they’ve started transporting animals to organizations in the Northeast where overpopulation isn’t an issue and they’ll be more likely to be quickly adopted.

Jeanine Cloyd, volunteer manager at HES, has witnessed the issues animal shelters battle in the South for over a decade. She started as a volunteer herself before working at the shelter full-time in 2006 and eventually moving into a role that focuses on growing and supporting HES’s vital volunteer base.

She believes the nurturing personalities of the women making up 90 percent of the shelter’s volunteers likely play a large role in their reason for volunteering. But, she also points out that at almost any non-profit organization, women often make up a majority of the volunteer ranks.

“I’m always so blown away by the commitment this group of people has to the animals we shelter here,” Cloyd said. “They’ll go above and beyond with anything you ask of them. My job is to manage people who truly enjoy coming to ‘work,’ and it’s a really inspirational thing.”

More than 900 registered volunteers have gone through the organization’s orientation, but Jeanine estimates that only around 300 actively volunteer on a regular basis, with around 125 considered very active. It’s not uncommon for new volunteers to only visit a handful of times before dropping off, and Jeanine and I both agree that’s likely due to the nature of the work involved.

The Burnout Effect

Spending time in an animal shelter on a daily or weekly basis isn’t an easy task. The condition in which animals enter the shelter, both physically and emotionally, can be bitterly heartbreaking, and the shelters themselves can feel cold, clinical and uninviting.

That atmosphere is more pronounced at HES because it’s an old shelter. Over 100 years old, in fact.

Like most animal rescue groups and organizations, they are underfunded, understaffed and rely heavily on grants, fundraisers and donations from the community. The building they currently call home is the same building used when the organization was first formed in 1910 by Ethel Hardy, who was known for picking up stray cats and dogs while driving her carriage through the streets of Chattanooga. HES has grown to serve unincorporated Hamilton County, taking in 4,000-5,000 homeless pets each year and housing around 500 animals at any given time. They mainly serve as a temporary shelter for cats and dogs, but also get the occasional pig, goat, rabbit and guinea pig.

The staff and volunteers work diligently to ensure the animals’ kennels are clean, safe and comfortable, but anyone who walks through the doors is still hit by the unavoidable smell and noise of hundreds of animals lining narrow halls marked by chipped paint, uneven floors, and water streaming into the dog kennel area when it rains.

Dogs come in scarred, underweight or terrified of their new confining, concrete walls, with the overwhelming sound of dozens of dogs barking from boredom or frustration. For people, spending time here requires a blend of compassion, mental strength, and a level of emotional distance that can be hard to balance.

Rebecca Shearer has been volunteering at the shelter for several years. She says that the way she thinks and feels about the shelter has changed over the years, and sometimes even day to day, but it’s the fellow volunteers and staff that make the experience worthwhile.

“I love it, or I hate it, and then I have that guilty feeling of ‘wouldn’t my life be so much easier if I didn’t volunteer’? Yet, I stay,” Shearer said. “What I love about being a part of the volunteer community here is being surrounded by a wildly diverse group of folks who all share one important sliver of their genetic makeup, which is caring so much about these animals. Volunteering has really altered the way I deal with my emotions and handle life stressors. I’m forced to turn disappointment into something positive or it’ll eat away at me. I couldn’t save one, so I’ll try to save the next three.”

Getting Our Hours In

Dogs kept in 4x8 concrete blocked kennels have a lot of energy to burn when you slip on a leash and hurry them through a hall of barking dogs lunging excitedly at their kennel doors. It’s hard to blame them for the commotion and enthusiasm they have while pushing against the glass, because they all know the dog pulling me towards the door is getting a short jailbreak.

Volunteer activities include cleaning kennels and litter boxes, helping visitors find their way through the maze of cages and kennels, taking dogs to adoption events, helping with laundry, and folding newspapers for cat cages. I’m more drawn to dog walking, enjoying the combination of helping the dogs get time outside of the shelter while getting some exercise myself.

But even amidst the aging building, unmistakable shelter smell and never-ending stream of animals in need, I still find that spending time there just feels right.

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“I think it’s fun and relaxing,” volunteer Susan Izell said. “Yes, cleaning a litter box and bathing a nasty kitten is a fun way for me to take time for myself away from the stresses of a job and other responsibilities in life. The cats and the staff are grateful for all that is done, and because of that, the longer I am there, the more I wish I had time to do.”

Some volunteers visit the shelter several times a week and form a personal bond with the animals. With daily adoptions and dozens of dogs earning their freedom ride North, I rarely get to know many before they find a new home. However, there are always sweet and deserving dogs who are overlooked because they don’t “present well” in the shelter environment – coming off as aggressive, overly hyper or fearful. But, given the chance to relax in a home, away from the stress of shelter life, many negative behaviors dissipate.

Counting on the Future

The collective goal is to find more homes for animals while fighting the culture that has left them in hopeless situations. Mary Bowman is another volunteer who has experienced the ups and downs of volunteering in a sometimes stressful and emotional environment.

“I invite anyone to show up when vans loaded with dogs and cats from hoarding situations, puppy mills, or hurricane affected areas arrive,” Bowman said. “Experience the hushed sacredness as teary-eyed staff and our red-shirted army stand shoulder to shoulder, tenderly shuttling scared and confused furry refugees off the vans, swaddling them in towels and blankets, taking them for walks and maybe baths, before lovingly introducing them to their crates and meals, cleaning up poop and pee, changing out newspapers, then taking them for another walk before finally bedding them down for the night. After all of that, what could be better than experiencing together the nurturing of an animal and seeing that beloved dog or cat heading home with people who have fallen in love with them?”

HES recently received funding to start construction on a new location. Everyone is excited about the future of the shelter, and not just because of the shiny new kennels and prospect of a non-leaky roof. A new shelter means more space for needy animals, more outdoor, fenced runs to get them out of their enclosures, and more adopters who won’t change their minds when they get overwhelmed by the rundown condition of the old building.

“The new facility is going to feel like a dream, but the shelter is much more than the physical structure,” Izell said. “It is the staff and volunteers who are passionate in their care for any animal who comes through the doors.”

However, volunteering is hard. Really hard. Some Saturdays, I come home from the shelter and am physically and mentally drained. It’s usually because I met a dog new to the shelter or one who’s been there for months that I hadn’t spent time with yet. There’s something about the way they look at me with that incomparable dog-like love and trust, even after being abused or abandoned or let down by people over and over again – and it hurts.

But then the next week, I help a family look at dog after dog until we take the right one to a play yard and it just clicks. Watching a couple turn to their son and ask, “Do you want to take this dog home?” Seeing that dog go from a kennel to the back seat of a car towards a new life makes the hard days worth it.

Everyone who volunteers has those stories about the dogs who have impacted them, and having a community that understands the up and downs but comes back anyway is motivating and empowering. It’s what helps everyone keep going.

“Kennel life is stressful, often heartbreaking, and passion runs high at HES,” Bowman said. “However, we always work through the tough stuff. Our deep sense of mutual purpose, high warmth for the animals and each other, and high fun keep us coming back day after day, event after event, adoption after adoption. That’s what family does – shows up!”

Laura C. Smith lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee where she works in communications and is pursuing a master's degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her work has previously appeared in WhiskeyPaper and The Bangalore Review.

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