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10 August 2007 @ 12:36 pm
the art of dedicating yourself  
Yesterday I spent my usual Thursday evening volunteering at the MSPCA shelter in Jamaica Plain (a southern part of Boston, for the non-locals). I had been neglecting my weekly visits for a while, making them more like bi-weekly, while searching for apartments, and am very glad I finally found a place and will be going back more regularly.

Some of you might know that working in animal rescue and advocacy is my career goal. That said, I don't have a whole lot of shelter experience, mostly because it was difficult to impossible to get involved in it while at Simon's Rock, so it's been a few years of disconnect. I got into the MSPCA stuff in April with gusto - and I really should have started much earlier. In my lower periods where depression or anxiety take over, working at this shelter is the only thing I'm really motivated by, the one thing I can still be passionate about. It is constant.

Much of the time it is fun, relaxing, and refreshing to be there. I get to cuddle with cats, walk dogs, and see wonderful animals find wonderful homes, often as a result of my coaching, informing, and aiding the potential adopters. That said, an animal shelter is an inherently heartbreaking environment to anyone who loves animals. This shelter is a special one, with amazing facilities for the homeless animals and such dedicated staff; the animals are not suffering in any way. But they are, nonetheless, wanting. Sometimes I have to remind myself not to get too caught up in thought when I am there, because it is so easy to want to grab a cat and hide in a corner with my emotions.

One of the big hazards of volunteering there regularly is getting to know the animals really well, especially the "old-timers" who stick around for months without finding homes. I've been lucky enough to see most of mine get homes eventually in the time I've been there. I can't even describe the rapturous feeling of seeing 9-year-old calico Cassie, who'd been there from early March to mid-July, and been through so much trauma (she stopped eating for a while and had to be isolated, then in foster care, for a few weeks), finally get scooped into a cardboard box for a thrilled couple. Some others have been transferred to other shelters, in the hopes they'd find a more interested clientele there. But whatever good endings might be possible, there's nothing scarier than coming in to find one of your old-timers missing. You run around frantically...maybe he's been moved, maybe she's sick in iso. You want to know, you're dying to know, oh it's probably good news, he probably has a home, someone finally saw how great she is...but you're clammy. You freeze up. You try to let the news find you because you are afraid to ask, afraid that they may have decided there was nothing they could do for this one.

It's not cruel. It hurts the people more than it hurts the animals. Unlike some of the Yelpers who gave the place a cursory glanced and immediately judged the organization - and therefore, the people who work so hard for the animals - because their shelters are not "no-kill" (or more aptly, "limited admission"), I bear no ill will about this. But when Frankie, my last old-timer from my starting days (he'd been there since at least April and probably before) wasn't there last night, I was relieved when the staff were so busy that I didn't get a chance to ask. I have to, I know, because if I want this to be my life's work, I have to be willing to face the possibilities, the realities of it all. And you know, with the track record at this shelter, it's not like I'm convinced it will be sad news - but I have to be willing to deal with it if it is.

Some things remind me even more that every trip to the shelter is an exercise in dedication, and that I have to grow a little stronger before this can become my living. Yesterday, I wandered over to the dog receiving area to check out what was back there; I'm always curious about who's coming in. My eye was first drawn to the enormous harlequin Great Dane (oh, how I love those giants), but quite quickly I was distracted by him, because Luna's barking was too desperate to ignore. He was in the kennel next to the Dane, howling repeatedly, chilling me.

The dog was a pit bull-type, squat and with a long torso and very clearly inbred, displaying some awful deformities like joints splayed out in every direction and seriously webbed toes. And he was emaciated. Signs all over his kennel door ordered staff and volunteers not to feed him; if he ate too much too fast, he could develop "refeeding syndrome." He was on a special diet and a strict feeding schedule monitored closely by the veterinary team.

When I say emaciated, I'm not using that word lightly. This dog had some muscle, but every bone on his body and in particular, every notch of his spine, strained against his dull tan coat. Even his face was bony, the skin stretched taut over his skull. Even more, he had superficial injuries all over his body, especially his legs and face. His severely cropped ears were scabby. I've never in person seen a dog that was so badly abused in my life.

I couldn't look at him very long. Even turning my head towards the Dane, Luna's yelps started tears. I was there for perhaps 4 or 5 minutes saying hello to all the dogs in the back before I could not take it anymore. I could not look at him, think on what people had done to him, but the pathetic picture in my mind will, of course, always stick. I know that someday I need to build up some resilience, and learn to deal with these things. Someday, I will; no, I won't be immune (if ever you do, that is the day you quit the field and seek therapy), but I will be strong, and know that the strength of the people who do this work is what it takes to bring animals like Luna out of the dark.
a trollop in paisleypseudoboy on August 10th, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)
I have to deal with much of the same issue in what I do. It took me almost a full year in this field to be able to largely leave my work at work and not lie awake at night wondering if the client who was slightly joking about hurting herself had in fact done so.

What I've found is that I needed to really understand that I'm doing what I can for those I'm caring for and sort of forgive myself for not being able to do more.
The Excellent Neon Fishcranbonite on August 10th, 2007 07:09 pm (UTC)
What I've found is that I needed to really understand that I'm doing what I can for those I'm caring for and sort of forgive myself for not being able to do more.

I'm still working on making peace with it, and not constantly feeling like I have things to make up for (because I haven't been doing this for long, because on occasion I skip a week, whatever). Hell, at least I'm doing it at all now, instead of talking the talk like I'd been for years.

I have to admire that work in that field full-time, and have for so long. I'm sort of still trying to deal with the realities of doing this sort of work, and I guess have a little fear that I'd burn out fast if I went into it full-time.

By the way, feel like scratching my back and walking for my cause? ;) September 9 around the Commons, though you have to be cool with dogs (there will be *lots*)...
gasped for coherence, found it scratchedchiarahaswings on August 10th, 2007 06:11 pm (UTC)
that was extroardinarily eloquent
you're the second person i've known to work at that particular shelter. i have great respect for your will and ambition but don't envy you the slightest. the familial urge to fix it/make it better: the one that prompted my dad to rescue kittens off freeways and rehabilitate (illegally) various wildlife is something i possess, but i can only deal one situation at a time. my compassion torn in a dozen directions, i would just shut down all emotion. there's an inherent optimism present in charity work; the hope that what you're doing will make things better, if not on a global then a personal scale. but staring at the mounting odds, i melt and get viciously angry. you know the odds and keep going back, and for that you're awesome. <3
The Excellent Neon Fishcranbonite on August 10th, 2007 06:49 pm (UTC)
Re: that was extroardinarily eloquent
you know the odds and keep going back, and for that you're awesome. <3

Honestly, the only thing that keeps me going back is insisting on a firm belief that the work I do does make a difference and that my cause is not hopeless. Yeah, it is inherently optimistic. But that particular optimism is ultimately the one thing in the world I am genuinely passionate about.
Loose Pole!!!!!!!!invader_zins on August 10th, 2007 07:09 pm (UTC)
There was a problem with AP... email me or PM me on TPP and I'll send you the new link.
The Excellent Neon Fishcranbonite on August 10th, 2007 07:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the post - but no worries, I'm all set! I heard that you had emailed about it so I didn't bother to contact you, but I'm all good :)
Loose Pole!!!!!!!!invader_zins on August 10th, 2007 07:16 pm (UTC)
Does Sarah know? Stacey? Kristi?

I let K2 know to pass the info along to seadeckgo, after that, I think we are set with everyone right? Or at least anyone that's used the board in the last year.
The Excellent Neon Fishcranbonite on August 10th, 2007 07:19 pm (UTC)
Oh, Sarah! I'll pass it onto her. Emailed Kristi, but I can't find Stacey's address...do you have it?
Loose Pole!!!!!!!!invader_zins on August 10th, 2007 07:22 pm (UTC)
No... but I'll mention to Heather that none of us have it.
Jenni: wolfjenjaina on August 13th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC)
Daphne, it was so awesome for me to read this entry by you. I know we haven't caught up for a while, so this view into something that you feel so passionate about, basically your life goal, was amazing. I can't imagine how hard that would be ... you know my mom's in health care, and I can't imagine how she deals the kind of pain that accompanies sick and dying people. I think it's the exact same thing, because 'animals are people too' as weird as that sounds. I'm so happy we got Coco from an animal shelter, that we rescued him like your animals are rescued. I'll get all my animals that way through the rest of my life.

That being said, you really are Cassie (the girl, not the cat)!