Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Volunteer Series: How Do I Emotionally Handle The Shelter Environment?

Hello kitty cat friends,

I'm often asked how I'm able to work in the shelter environment and not get emotionally distraught? It's a very valid question. Working in animal welfare, rescue, fostering, shelters, and etc. is not for everyone. Below, I'm going explain the reasons I'm able to work in this field and how I make that possible for me.

I want to say preface this with everyone will be different. I have limitations on what I choose to open myself up to. Some people have a higher tolerance than me and some people have a lower tolerance than me. No one is better or worse of an animal advocate either way. If you're someone who can only donate money/items that all makes a difference! You should not feel guilty or be made to feel guilty because you're not emotionally/financially/physically able to do more for animal advocacy. What you can and want to contribute is enough and appreciated!
The Shelter Itself

This is the main reason. The Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando is a wonderfully run and maintained shelter. The facility is clean, the animals are healthy and cared for, and the staff is hard working. Walking into PAGO you feel that warmth, love, and positive energy. It's not a sad place like many shelters can be. The dogs and cats at PAGO are owner relinquished animals and PAGO does not euthanize for space or time. Every cat I see out for adoption will stay out for adoption no matter their age or how long they've been there. I also know how well the animals are cared for by staff and volunteers. Every morning the facilities are fully cleaned, animals get fresh bedding and food/water, and animals that are on vet check are assessed and treated. In addition to that a variety of volunteers spend 6 hours every day socializing and loving on the cats and dogs at PAGO. I know the animals there are loved to the greatest degree and to know I just add on to the love makes wonderful and positive atmosphere to be in.

Creating Emotional Boundaries

I'm able to create boundaries mostly due in part to volunteering with PAGO. I do my best to keep my realm of animal advocacy within the PAGO realm. If I start to venture into looking at what's going on at other shelters I'm done. I can't emotionally deal with the timelines animals have at other shelters or the horrors I see in photos of animal abuse and neglect posted on other animal rescue sites. Guilt is something I struggle with in general, and I do struggle with it in this too at times. I question if I'm doing enough or if I'm selfish sticking to this one thing? Yes, these horrors are realities in animal welfare, but I have to realize that I can't be everything and do everything or I'll fail at everything. I have be my best self in order to do what I know I can do where I'm needed.

Taking Breaks 

As great as PAGO is that doesn't mean there are some cats there with backstories that upset me, frustrating things I can't change, or ignorant people. It's difficult to see a cat in our shelter whose owner passed away. I can sense their sadness and feel their pain. I hurt with them and for them. There are cats who are completely unsocialized due to being in home with too many other animals and it frustrates me because now they have difficult behavioral issues. Sometimes it's a busy chaotic day and I just can't focus or think straight enough to accomplish what I want to accomplish. There are some things I want to change or do better, but due to lack of resources and funds I can't. Compassion fatigue and shelter burnout are real and that's why taking breaks is healthy and important. Sometimes I'll bypass one of my normal shifts if I'm really feeling bad, but most of the time I'll take mini breaks within a shift. I'll go into quiet space of the shelter or in a free roam cat room and just have a few moments to myself. It's difficult to sometimes recognize when I'm at my limit and even more difficult to give myself permission to take a break, but I'm working on being more aware and being kinder to myself.

Recognizing If I'm Being My Best Self

I often ask myself "Am I being my best self right now"?  I can't be my best self if I'm trying to expend myself too far or in areas I know are too emotionally difficult for me. I know I'm my best self when my focus is on helping PAGO kitties get comfortable in their environment, feel loved and appreciated, and find a home. I'm my best self also when I'm educating potential adopters, cat owners, and friends on how to be better cat guardians. These are the areas where I excel and I know make a difference. Sure, they're two tiny areas on a vast spectrum of animal welfare, but they're needed too. Everyone is needed in any capacity they see fit whether it be fostering, TNR, education, and etc. but we can't be our best selves if we don't recognize our limitations and forget to be kind to ourselves.

These are all ways I manage working in shelter environment. It's not always easy, but it's always rewarding for me to know I've improved the life of a cat. If volunteering at a shelter or doing work with animal welfare is something you're interested in but afraid of the emotional toll do some research. There are so many ways you can make a difference in this area without having to take too much of a toll on your heart. You're not selfish or weak for having limitations on what you can handle. I've been made to feel guilty for this and I've made myself feel guilty for it as well. It's such a waste of your time and skills when you get sucked into feeling guilty. No one is a better or worse person for doing more or doing less. No matter how small you think your contribution is it's needed and appreciated so don't let that stop you from doing what you want to do!

That's all for meow 😻!


  1. Great post! One more question I would have is how do you avoid becoming overly attached or feeling the need to adopt every sweet cat you work with. Obviously it's not possible to personally save every cat you come into contact with, but how do you focus on finding a forever home with someone else for each cat instead of wishing you could just take them all in?

    1. For me, it's about knowing my personal limitations. I have one cat who has had expensive medical needs over the years. The financial aspect of medical care for one cat is all I can handle, so I know bringing another cat into my home would be unwise. Also, I know that at the shelter I work with that all of the cats there will get adopted and get loved on every day. That's why I couldn't work at a kill shelter I would be taking them home! There are definite cats that I bond with and get attached to, but even though I may not be their forever home in the moments I spend with them I'm providing them with the love and care they need. It's all about how you frame it for yourself and understanding your limitations.

  2. Thank you for this, I've always wondered how I would do if I volunteered, this really helps me!

    1. I'm glad this has been helpful to you!