10 Myths that people believe about shelter workers

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I was in a meeting today when the phone rang; I could see it was the refuge and they only ring in an emergency. It was our secretary who wanted to know if I could arrange to pick a dog up. No problem. I took the number and called the woman. She’d adopted a puppy three months ago and now she wants to return it. I don’t have words. Still, I ring her and ask her when she wants the dog picked up.

“Tomorrow,” she said.

“I’m really sorry. I’m working tomorrow and it’s just not possible. I’m free next Thursday.”

The tough part of the decision is wondering what might happen if I don’t do exactly as she says, dropping everything to meet her request. Where you’re holding a vulnerable hostage, you’ve got a pretty big bargaining chip. One that makes you a nasty piece of work if you use it, but who’s to say who’s bluffing and who’s not?

I went back into the meeting. “This is why I wanted to work with dogs.” I said. Dogs aren’t arseholes, by and large. You seriously wouldn’t believe the stuff that people say to us on a daily basis. I thought I’d take a minute to debunk the myths and give you a bit of an insight into the daily world of a shelter worker or volunteer.

Here’s ten of my favourite things people seem to believe about us.

#1 We’re stupid. We had a phone call last week from a “concerned” member of the public who didn’t think we should let our elderly dogs go to a particular home that often takes on dogs for palliative care. “Dogs die there!” they said. Bloody hell! Thanks for telling us! We had no idea that old dogs might die, even though the vet gave them a month tops at the last check-up. Ten minutes of badgering later and the person is now angry at just how stupid we are. When you’re a shelter worker, people think nothing of telling you that you’re doing the wrong thing. We’re so lucky to have an army of armchair experts to suck the time right out of us. I guess most people in the caring professions feel like this though. There’s a type of person who loves to tell the experts how they should do stuff. We’re lucky we’re not premiership footballers, I guess. Some days it does feel like there are 80000 people surrounding you who know better than you how to do your job, though.

#2 Loosely connected to #1 is the myth that we know nothing about dogs or cats. According to some people, working at a shelter means you have prioritised caring over canines. We’re all so blinkered by our big old hearts and our blinded by naive stupidity that we can’t tell our Basset Fauve de Bretagne from a Great Dane. Not only that, since we work in rescue, we must all therefore be totally against breeding, totally against breeders, totally against pedigrees and totally against doggie stuff like rules or training. Never mind the fact that without breeding, there would be no dogs, so if we were against breeders, we’d be against dogs. A guy last week lost his rag with me because I personally wouldn’t re-categorise an American Staffordshire Terrier. Not that I can. Never mind the dog has been classified by a vet who is one of five vets in the region whose job it is to do just that. We’re all idiots who have no idea what we’re doing. And never mind that just because we might love the muttleys doesn’t mean that we don’t rescue pedigrees or have special places in our hearts for the bulldogs, the huskies, the Anglos or the cockers. Another guy was happily telling me how we knew nothing about gundogs and showed me proudly his photos of his “English Pointer” who looked very much like a mutt to me. Our English pointers just aren’t English pointers, according to him. Another time suck. And never mind what breed it is: how would anyone who works in a shelter, with our big bleeding hearts, know anything about canine behaviour? Never mind that both our president and the refuge director are both canine behaviouralists and most of us bone up very quickly on animal body language. Ahhhh.

#3 Not only are we stupid, we’re also all bleeding hearts. We’re just too kind. Nobody can understand how we can do what we do without torturing any number of individuals who’ve brought us dogs or been the subject of a legal seizure. It’s probably because we’re all a little bit touched. Fact: we have the biggest bullshit detectors, and, like the dogs, we can smell it on you. We’re not just a bunch of gullible hippies who believe every story about dog bites, who doesn’t get on with whom, what little Rover did to little Rex. Last week, a woman dropped her dog off telling me quite categorically that the dog was bad with “big dogs.” We were at that moment standing next to Belle, the refuge guard dog. She’s a statuesque shepherd cross. Then Dino walked by. He’s a big bruiser of a filo de San Miguel. “Not good with big dogs, you say?” I just raised an eyebrow and walked off. Just because we clean up other people’s shit doesn’t mean we were born yesterday or that we’re all soft. And just because we refrain from chaining people up like dogs as a punishment for what they have done themselves doesn’t make us a pushover either.

#4 We don’t know the law. I can’t count the number of times I’ve explained procedures to people only for them to say, “well, I’m going to do this instead.” Good for you. I’ll wait for your call when you’ve tried that then. People get really mad at us because, believe it or not, there are systems in place for dealing with animal neglect or cruelty. Without those, we’d be an unregulated army of stupid bleeding hearts, so it’s a good job we do. I can’t tell you how many people suck the living time out of my soul with forty-minute phone calls about how some dog spends a lot of time outside and how that’s tantamount to cruelty. I re-read the guidance about animal welfare the other day and thought “I sound really hard.” But I wrote that to stop the endless phone calls about various acts of animal “cruelty” that are in fact very legal situations. So often, the real cases of animal abuse get lost in between lengthy arguments over what is or what is not animal abuse. Our time and energy is absorbed in fruitless conversations with people about why exactly you have to get the authorities involved or whether or not some animal is being abused. Not only that, but people get really angry at us because the law, in their opinion, doesn’t do enough. We know it doesn’t. This is what we live with. Still, spending an hour on the phone to you whilst you moan about it isn’t changing anything. Glad you feel better to have offloaded about how incompetent and inadequate everything is, though.

#5 Not only are we all naive, trusting souls who don’t know about animals or the law, we’ve also got bags of free time. Personally, I don’t mind phone calls at 10pm, but I’m damned if I’m going to call the boss and ask her to reserve a dog for you. We do try to have lives. For me, I have a full-time job, four dogs of my own, a full-time garden, a semi-derelict house that I’m trying to do up in full frugal style and I’m on two other committees besides the shelter’s. I know there are people who think I don’t work, that I don’t have other stuff to do or that I have times when I am not available. I know there are people who get cross because I’ve decided something is not as urgent as they think it is and I’m not bothering the staff with it tonight. No, I won’t give you their numbers or email addresses. They’re at home with their families. Our vet nurse actually volunteers in the afternoons at the refuge, since her salary doesn’t cover her for anything but mornings, but she’s still there of her own volition, and people are mad when she’s not on 24 hour call. And no, I’m not calling her when she’s on holiday. Take your animal to the vet and pay the vet for an emergency consultation. No, I won’t reserve a dog for you at midnight. No, I won’t give you my mobile number. You’re horrified that the refuge phone lines are busy or engaged? Why don’t we answer before lunch? I just don’t know. Feel free to come in at 9am, man the phones and sift through our daily bullshit though, if you want to help.

#6 We’re powerless. So we can’t march in to a property, break open the doors and check whether Flopsy-Woo is sleeping on the sofa or not, but we can and do investigate. We prosecute too. I’m sick to the back teeth of asking “Have you been to the mairie?” and being told “No, they won’t help.” Here’s some news for you buddy. Yes, there are maires who stink. We know exactly who’ll do something and who won’t. But most are helpful human beings who have a modicum of education. Not only that, they can order the police about. And us. They can order us too. But we’re good at doing things in other ways and believe it or not, it’s not always just about removal of abused or neglected animals. We’re good at putting dossiers together. We’re good at talking to neighbours, negotiating with mairies and negotiating with people who’ve neglected their animals. Just because we can’t hand out 30-year sentences or issue the death penalty doesn’t mean that we’re without power. We’re neither Judge Dredd nor are we wandering around doing nothing at all.

#7 We’ve got the patience of saints. Right now, it’s 07.28 and I’m in a message exchange with a staff member who’s blowing a gasket about someone we’d banned from having a dog who came and picked one up when neither of us were there. She’s also got to go and pick up a dog. My fingers hurt a bit from all the anger. Staff turnover is high. People burn out. Keeping a lid on all the frustration and anger takes its toll. Caregiver burnout is a constant risk. Volunteers can luckily walk away and take a break before coming back at it. The staff can’t do this. In my view, this is why we need as many volunteers as possible, to help share the burden. Fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression are standard and it’s exhausting. Given #1 to #6, you can kind of understand why the patience we have wears thin from time to time.

#8 We prioritise animals over people. I’ve lost count of the times that people say that my priorities are out of whack, or that we must really hate people. Ironically, despite everything that humans do to animals, the people who adopt our dogs and cats largely restore our faith. What mostly restores my faith is working alongside so many great people who I can rely on totally. There are still plenty of good people to believe in. And, contrary to popular belief, just because I’m an animal lover doesn’t mean that I don’t give a stuff about human welfare issues. I’m quite tired of other ‘humanitarians’ treating me as if I’ve got my priorities out of order because I didn’t suddenly drop animal welfare issues and start expending all my energies on refugees. Just because I didn’t doesn’t mean I don’t help out with that too where I can. I’m very tired of the idea that any one cause is more noble than another or people feeling that they can take a pop at those who live and breathe animal welfare just because “they’re only animals.” We should care for all things on earth, full stop.

# That we’re somehow wonderful and noble, nay saintly, for everything we do. Because scooping up dog shit is noble. “I couldn’t do what you do,” people say. Yes you could. You just don’t want to. Just say “I don’t want to do what you do.” That’s fair enough. But we aren’t harder, tougher, more in control of our fists or more in control of our stomachs than the average person. We’re just people who think, “If I don’t do it, who will?” We just keep turning up. Day after day. Month after month. That’s all. I’m pretty sure everyone can turn up to stuff.

#10 We spend our days with the healthy sheen of our halos casting a benign light over our beatific zen-like faces as we romp with animals. Yes, we’re not just better than the average person who couldn’t do what we do, whatever they think that is, but people seem to think that we’re basking in the wonder of our happy do-gooding. Mostly, we don’t romp. We get dragged along by dogs who’ve been out once or twice in the week, because so many people “can’t do what we do” and we often look like shit. We laugh about this, because either it’s cold, and we’re wrapped up so thick that nobody even noticed I’d had my hair cut for six whole weeks, or it’s wet and we’re wearing mens’ waterproofs or bin bag accessories, or it’s too hot and we’re sweating beneath our long trousers in case some over-excited dog fancies saying hello to our calves with their teeth.

Whatever you believe about shelter workers and volunteers, we’re all just people. That’s all. We’re not stupid. We’re not gullible. We’re not swanning around like Lady Bountiful, sunning ourselves in our own virtues. I’d be glad for just one day when people didn’t make assumptions about us. It sure would make my day much nicer.

And if you think like we do, if you can turn up from time to time, if you want to make a difference and you love animals (and people!) why not come and join us? Find out how to volunteer here