Kindness Matters

I recently received the following message from an animal rescue volunteer: “Sadly, I have been struggling a lot in the animal rescue field. Sure, I’ll continue to donate and adopt from shelters or rescues, but I’ve just been burned financially and emotionally too many times by those in rescue. Too many folks in rescue are so blinded with helping save as many as possible that everything else becomes lost in the fray. As a pet foster parent, I always end up feeling forgotten and abandoned. After this current foster is adopted, I’m done.” As yet another volunteer wearied of the animal welfare field I began to think about those who are just starting out. The advice I’d offer them can be summarized in two words: Be kind.

Dear New Volunteer:

Welcome to the wonderful world of animal welfare! For many volunteers including myself, it’s a field where one forges multiple friendships and discovers one’s passion in life. Unfortunately, it’s also a field where one can sometimes drown in sorrow and drama. As you delve deeper into the animal welfare field, I encourage you to find balance by embracing kindness.

Be kind to fellow volunteers

The motto for the Best Friends Animal Society is “together we can save them all,” with emphasis on together. As animal welfare volunteers, we all have one motivation for giving our time, energy, and money to the cause—a love of animals. For that reason, working together should be easy to do. Unfortunately, we don’t always agree on the best way to help animals. Moreover, unity can be hard to practice when caught up in the emotional angst of a moment. One day a conversation in a Trap-Neuter-Release Facebook group turned mean. The discussion started when the sole caretaker of a feral cat colony vented about the physical, emotional, and financial toll her responsibilities were taking on her. Initially, others chimed in to commiserate. Next she started criticizing those volunteers who were “not in the trenches,” such as marketers, photographers, writers, etc. A few caretakers disagreed, only to find themselves a target of criticism. The discussion then disintegrated to the point that even those “in the trenches” were being criticized if they were part of a larger group instead of a one-person operation. As I read all of this, I felt disheartened. After all, when people who share a common passion can’t support each other, is it any wonder that so many animal welfare volunteers split off to start their own groups or quit the field?

In contrast, what follows is an example of a situation in which kindness and cooperation ruled. My husband and I were driving through Ohio, a two-day drive from where we live, on our way home from a vacation. At the hotel where we stopped overnight, I saw some stray cats, including one that was injured. I had no idea what to do other than to post a plea for help in at a Trap-Neuter-Release Facebook group after we got home. To my relief, no one judged me for not intervening myself, but instead suggested people I could contact. One wonderful woman, who has since become a friend, took up the call. She talked to the hotel manager and to residents about the cats. In cooperation with a spay-neuter clinic, she proceeded to trap the cats and have them spayed/neutered, vaccinated, and treated for injuries. She also enlisted the support of locals in providing continual care of the cats. At any point, this situation could have turned sour. My friend could have demanded cooperation from the hotel manager, which might have resulted in the cats being taken to the shelter, where no doubt they would have been euthanized. My friend could’ve blasted the residents or not taking better care of the cats, which might have turned them against the cause, leaving the cats without any caretakers. Instead, the situation had a happy outcome. The hotel continues to this day to manage the feral cat colony. In addition, four cats have been adopted.

Be kind to pet owners

The longer you volunteer in the animal welfare field, the more often you’ll hear the sentiment: “I love animals; I hate people.” If you scroll through enough media stories, there’s certainly justification for this negativity. Animals across our country are suffering and/or dying due to neglect, abandonment, hoarding, and even abuse. The longer you stay in the field, the greater the likelihood that you’ll personally encounter these situations. However, while sometimes the right response will be to advocate for legislation, report a crime, or confront a neighbor, the reality is that many pet owners act out of ignorance, lack of resources, or a feeling of being overwhelmed. In these cases, while it might prove hard to keep your emotions in check over questionable decisions, kindness to your fellow pet owner is the best action.

I follow pet forums where members can ask pet advice and even attempt to re home a pet, and sometimes the discussions get heated. A recent situation involved that of a pet owner with two senior dogs that had grown up together, but the one had turned aggressive in its senior years, and so the owner raised the possibility of finding another home for the aggressive dog. Some commenters offered empathy and/or practical solutions, while others accused the pet owner of being callous and even expressed the desire for the person to suffer that same fate as the aggressive dog, that of being discarded in his old age. While this particular pet owner remains active in the group, there have times when instead such bullying has caused a member to leave. While blasting a pet owner for what we view as wrong might feel good at the time, I question the long-term outcome. The pet owner will in the future feel reluctant to ask for help. In addition, in the absence of constructive advice, the animal in need will undoubtedly end up in a shelter where euthanasia is a real possibility.

In contrast, what follows is an example of a situation in which kindness and education ruled. Years before I met her, a dear friend of mine setup a non-profit, Lakes Animal Friendship Society, which is dedicated to improving the lives of companion animals in northern British Columbia. Through her volunteer work as a humane educator, my friend teaches residents about animal care while also providing practical solutions to community problems. Her non-profit started the Doghouse Project, which builds shelters for dogs and cats in need. The organization shares its designs online, making its practical solution available worldwide, so that “even more dogs and cats can have a place to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter”. By offering pet owners practical assistance, her organization does far more to help animals than if she had chosen instead to berate pet owners who were not providing adequate shelter for their outdoor pets.

Be kind to those who don’t own pets

When you volunteer in animal welfare, you are a representative of the position that animals should be treated humanely. Each time that we interact with other people, especially those who don’t own pets, we have the opportunity to shape their opinion about animals and the humane treatment of animals. For example, this past month my youngest cat and I started visiting a senior retirement community. As we entered and exited the facility, we drew attention; people were surprised to see a cat in a stroller. The next two things to catch people’s attention were Rainy’s harness and leash. People are always surprised to learn that cats can be trained to accept a leash. People then asked about the reason for Rainy’s visit, which gave me the opportunity to tell them about therapy cats. This has led to people wanting to see Rainy up close and even pet her. These encounters might not convince anyone to go out and adopt a cat, but you never know. It’s better to be kind and sway people’s opinion of cats towards the positive rather than towards the negative. I grew up having no interest in cats due to hearing that they were independent and moody. It was because I found a special cat that my opinion of cats changed for the better. Now, with cat therapy, Rainy and I have the opportunity to shape other people’s opinions.

Be kind to yourself

Compassion fatigue is real. This became all too apparent to me when I began to read of suicides in the field. Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and internationally recognized pioneer in the field of animal behavior applied to pet training, took her life in 2014. Two years later, a veterinary doctor and director of an animal shelter in Taiwan made the news when she killed herself due to being distraught about her shelter’s euthanasia rate. She was only thirty-one. On the heels of these incidents, a recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine revealed that animal rescue workers have a workplace suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers. While these statistics are of paid workers rather than volunteers, sooner or later everyone in the field risks compassion fatigue unless we learn to be kind to ourselves.

Those who are involved in animal welfare and especially animal rescue are constantly bombarded with pleas for help and stories of abuse. When so many lives are at stake daily, cynicism naturally develops about the dedication of your fellow volunteers, the integrity of pet owners, and even your ability to make a difference. What about those who work with animals but aren’t involved in rescue? One dog trainer shared her experience online of how she initially expected “happy skies” because she was only working with responsible pet owners who loved their pets. Except then this trainer adopted a difficult dog, which led her to work with clients who also had difficult dogs, and this eventually took an emotional toll on her.

If you push yourself to the breaking point and end up leaving animal welfare altogether, that wouldn’t be good for anyone. Instead, by taking things more slowly and taking breaks, you’ll accomplish more in the long run because you’ll be able to stay in animal welfare longer. How exactly should you avoid burning out? The first truth you must accept is that you can NOT save them all. One day all of us together might turn the tide, but for now just focus on saving one life. If you do nothing else, this single act will change the life of that one animal and its owner; and herein you’ve made a difference. And on those days when tragedies happen, seek out inspirational stories such as those that shine a spotlight on the human-animal bond. You must also take concrete steps to ensure your life doesn’t revolve around animal welfare 24/7. Make time for family and friends, including your own pets. Focus on the parts of your life that you can control, such as a healthy diet and exercise routine. Ensure each day contains fun moments, whether it’s an hour of arcade games, a bubble bath, or a nap.

Animal welfare is a wonderful path to take! I wish you many blessed years on this journey upon which you’re about to embark. When I first started visiting a no-kill shelter to socialize dogs, I had no idea how many twists and turns my life would take. Nor how failures and successes I’d have, as I started to network with rescues. As you delve deeper into the field, you’ll probably find it hard to believe that one could never need a break. I fell into that trap myself, with the result that last year I found myself no longer getting any pleasure from the field. I finally decided to take last month off from helping animals. During that month, I decided which commitments to keep, and took time to enjoy life.

On an animal welfare podcast that I recently listened to, a guest speaker stated: “People are the problem; they are also the solution.” As you too pursue the path of animal welfare, please remember: Kindness matters, to fellow volunteers who care, to other pet owners, to non-pet owners, and to yourself.


26 thoughts on “Kindness Matters

  1. We could see more kindness everywhere. I work with kids and it can be so disheartening to see them be mean. How do we more effectively teach kindness to humans so that they can be kind to animals?


    1. Of late, I have gotten interested in Humane Education. It teaches compassion and respect. I think Humane Education is particularly important to teach to young people. If we can teach the upcoming generation to be kind, we might raise a generation that works together for the greater good of animals and all humanity.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve seen the comments flying away on social media when people do not agree or say unkind things without knowing a background story. I like Best Friends motto: “together we can save them all” because people forget that and I’m sure the emotional toll can be overwhelming when working in animal welfare. Kindness is such a simple concept to carry through. As the podcast guest speaker says, people are the problem but also the solution, So true!


    1. Because of all the drama, I’m careful these days about what groups I follow on social media. I try to follow those who most practice kindness. They’re the ones that I want to support and the ones who encourage me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A very good post! There is a wonderful organization here in NC called “Beyond Fences”. It started out building fences for dog owners in poor neighborhoods. It now helps with vet care, transport, and all sorts of services. It looks as pet ownership as a boon for anyone, regardless of financial resources. I really appreciated your comments as I have done a lot with rescues and seen the good and bad firsthand.
    (YAYDog Clare). I would add to tell those new volunteers to take care of themselves, too.


    1. AMEN! One of the best ways to help other pet owners is to take care of oneself. If one sets boundaries and one regularly rejuvenates, one can do a lot of good in the animal welfare world.

      YAY! Thanks for sharing your experience with Beyond Fences. If only all animal welfare organizations were like it, the world would be a better place.


  4. Excellent article, Allison. I’ve been put down, berated and down right insulted by many animal rescue volunteers. In my experience many seem to think they are the only ones whose efforts matter. I believe that together we make a difference and everyone’s efforts, no matter how big or small, matter tremendously. Thank you for such an insightful post.


    1. I’m sorry for your negative experience with animal rescue volunteers. All I can say is I understand. I’ve seen some amazing people start out in the field being able to work with others and contribute greatly to the cause. Then over time, whether because they’ve been criticized themselves or because they lose themselves in the emotional toll of trying to save every animal, they start to change. They become impatient, irritable, and even egotistical. I’ve lost more than one friendship, while also making many friends. Some people are golden.


  5. This is such a good post. Most people are seriously trying to do the best they can. When others are being judgey it can make you question your efforts. There have been some FB groups with poor administrators who let others bully. But finding a good online community can make a huge difference. When rules are clear and people have sincere concerns and questions, there can be positive discussion.


    1. What I’ve observed is that a lot of animal welfare groups get started by people with lots of passion but not a lot of business skills. These animal welfare groups often begin well but then succumb to disorganization and conflict. The best animal welfare groups have been well-thought out beforehand and will recruit volunteers that bring a diversity of skills. Even then volunteers might clash. The group I’m part of accepts lots of volunteers but only brings ones onto the board if the personalities work well together.


  6. Good post, although a bit long. I learned a lot about rescues when I read the book, “Rescuing Penny Jane.” I have not worked with rescues mostly due to lack of time. You provide some great information.


  7. Sometimes kindness can be overlooked or dismissed, but I don’t think it is ever wasted or unnecessary. I’m not deeply involved in rescue, but I have so much admiration for the people who are in the trenches, as well as those who are active in more subtle ways. We each need to do the best we can, and not look for fault in other people. I don’t know that berating or judging someone has ever helped a person change, but kindness, encouragement, and assistance can go a long way!


    1. One of the lessons I’ve had to learn as a volunteer is that we all have our part to offer. I have at times been in the trenches, but most of the time I help in more subtle ways. For a long time, I felt valueless in the field despite others telling me that providing education is important. Now that I have embraced my role, I tend to be especially protective of others who pursue less traditional roles. I even ran a series on the unique ways one can volunteer. We all need each other.


    1. My article focused on those who volunteer in the animal welfare world. It’d be interesting and perhaps informative to know if the same issues exist in other volunteer circles. Are animal activists themselves the issue? Or does being a volunteer in any field run risks?


  8. I recently started volunteering for the rescue that I adopted Echo from, but I have been following them and many others on facebook for a while now. I have seen the negativity that you are talking about. Different people think things should be done different ways and it leads to disagreements and tension. I find that kindness is always the best way to go, even if you do not agree with someone else. At the end of the day, it is saving the animals and making sure they go to good forever homes and that they get the care they need.


    1. I’m sorry that you’ve seen negatively in animal rescue. I know that volunteers love animals deeply and want the best for them. Unfortunately, sometimes this gets lost in the daily drama. We always need to keep our sights on the end goal: helping and saving animals.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Why is being kind so hard for so many. Why is it so difficult to remember that there is more than one way? I recently had to hold back from being mean and judgemental right back at someone working from a rescue that point blank told me that she would never let me adopt a dog from her rescue because dogs “aren’t suppose to fly in airplanes” … it nearly made me write off the entire rescue. I didn’t but … And this JUST as we are considering fostering.


    1. If we could all experience both sides, that might be helpful. My husband and I have been on the foster side and have judged the rescues/shelters with the strict rules. Then this past fall we rescued a kitten and in trying to find a home for her suddenly began to understand what being on the side of rescue must feel like. You might of interest the article I wrote about our experience.


  10. Ah, yes, being kind to each other often seems to be difficult for animal lovers, doesn’t it? While the love of animals connects, many people feel that their way is the only right way and everybody else is doing things wrong.


    1. My experience is that the deeper one gets into animal welfare, the harder it is to remember that different viable viewpoints exist. When my husband and I recently created a cat adoption application, I had keep myself from requiring that the accepted applicant would train their new cat. I had to accept that cats can be happy in many other ways. We can love our pets in different ways that are equally correct.


  11. A good post. There is a lot of sense here about animal carers, animal advocates and rescue workers. The final comment that people are the solution is critical. Education will stop people being silly, or stupid or careless and lead to the survival of so many more millions of cats, and dogs and other pets.


    1. Thanks for your comment! In animal welfare circles, pet owners often receive a lot of criticism. I know there are bad owners, but there are also a lot of caring but ignorant ones. Those I think are worth trying to reach. The more united people are in how to give the best care to animals, the better off animals will be.


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