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Heroes on the Frontlines of Animal Rescue

Featured Heroes: Leslie Smith, Will Travers, Mike Arms, and Gene Baur

By Michele C. Hollow of Pet News and Views

Many of you volunteer on behalf of animals, and some days are harder than others. When I visit a shelter, I try to focus on the good that is being done by so many who work and volunteer in animal rescue. I have a lot of heroes. Here are a few of their stories and their advice on how to cope:

Leslie Smith, writer at Best Friends Animal Society, former editor of Dogtime, and volunteer at Espanola Shelter in NM
Leslie and her husband live with two rescues: Uno, a pointer/Doberman/lab mix, and Maybe, a pit bull. Here is what she has to say: “As for my shelter visits, some days are harder than others. It always helps to be there when an adoption to “the perfect family” takes place. And it also helps to respect the people you work with (or volunteer for, in this case). At the Espanola shelter where I am now, the building itself is just a complete eyesore—ramshackle, small, just really broke down—but the administration is so supportive of each other. And most importantly, they are true animal lovers.

Leslie Smith spends time with Magoo.

I recently became attached to a big red pit bull who doesn’t have much use of his left front leg; his elbow was dislocated and was never treated or reset. I don’t think it causes him pain after all this time, but he doesn’t walk on it. I would go into his kennel and lay down with him on a blanket, as much as we both could fit. He would nuzzle in close and every so often, he’d sort of flip his gimpy leg over my arm and rest it there. Because of his spotty history and injury, I was afraid that yesterday might be the last time I’d see him. And I just lost it. I didn’t just get a bit teary; I had the whole thing going: quivery lip, lamb-y voice, audible sniffles. One of the kennel managers was conducting a new volunteer orientation, and there I was, choking back sobs. (The kennel manager, by the way, called me at home later to make sure I was okay. Not mad at all that I’d made a scene during her orientation—just concerned that I was okay. Those are the kind of people I work with.)”

“For the most part, I think of my shelter days as part of my regular job. The ONLY choice I have in this life is to alleviate whatever pain or loneliness or boredom I can. It’s hard sometimes, but the guilt I’d feel if I didn’t do it would be worse. And of course, the perspective and the joy and comfort the animals give me is irreplaceable. Some of the cruelty cases are especially gut-wrenching and demoralizing. The more I’m exposed to it, the more I feel compelled to act. And as my husband says: ‘You can come home and cry all you want, but don’t bring home any more animals. That’s fair, I think’.”

Will Travers, CEO of Born Free USA/Born Free Foundation

Will Travers

“I have seen animals in truly terrible conditions in zoos, circuses and held by private individuals all over the world and it can be an emotionally disturbing experience. You ask what I do to keep cool and what advice I have for others who do animal rescues. I would offer the following five points:

1. Think of the animals and what you can do for them.

2. Turn your outrage and anger into positive action.

3. Do not collapse (however terrible it is). Falling apart will not help the animals.

4. Use the positives. When an exotic pet owner sees the light (e.g. relinquishes their pet primate to the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary) use that story to show others the error of their ways and that positive change is possible.

5. Be strong, be caring and be compassionate.”

Michael M. Arms, President and CEO of Helen Woodward Animal Center
When asked how he keeps his cool, he explains: “You have to steal your emotions. In order to help people or train organizations, you see and hear some of the most heart-wrenching stories and policies. A perfect example is when I was talking to a group of people ( I will not mention who or where), but a young person’s statement to me was that you have a cliché of this being a “Catch 22” situation, and his definition of this was “we catch them and use a .22 on them.” In order for me to educate, I have to understand that this was passed down by families before him and I needed to remain calm to retrain this way of thinking.”

Mike Arms, president of Helen Woodward Animal Center, poses with a friend.

Mike’s advice to animal rescuers is to “Never lose focus. Always stay calm. Go in one direction. Learn, then teach that this is a profession and that we are in the business of saving lives.”

Gene Baur of President and Co-Founder of Farm Sanctuary

Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary with a rescued friend. (Photo Credit: Derek Goodwin)

When asked how he remains calm dealing with difficult situations, he responded by saying: “I keep my cool by dwelling in the positive things that are happening, such as animals being rescued from bad conditions and citizens becoming empowered to make more humane food choices, rather than immersing myself in the abuses that can seem so rampant in our world.”

And regarding advice to others in animal rescue, Gene explains:
“For people involved in animal rescue, I would encourage you to tell the animals’ stories far and wide in order to educate citizens and advance efforts to banish systems, like factory farming, that create animal refugees who to need to be rescued.”

You heard their stories. What’s yours? Feel free to share in the comments section of this post. And thank you all for your work on behalf of animals.

48 comments to Heroes on the Frontlines of Animal Rescue

  • Michele, as always, this is a great post. Super important advice on how important it is to stay calm and positive to keep the momentum of moving forward and saving lives.
    Another cliche that I despise is “Shoot, Shovel and Shut-up” A phrase that we hear from people living in the same areas as our top predators. We need to keep calm and focused to reduce the human-wildlife conflicts. Helping all people to understand that we need our top predators to keep our ecosystem in balance is the goal. Keeping calm to relay this message is essential even though it is incredibly difficult to do durning the heartbreaking moments.

  • They can be heartbreaking moments, and it was interesting that everyone agreed that we must remain calm during these times. I just love these guys! Thanks!–Michele

  • Indeed how true it is, “. Do not collapse (however terrible it is). Falling apart will not help the animals. ” That is the hardest part for me when I have assisted in the transport or care of a dog to a shelter. TY for this reminder.

  • Heart wrenching stuff, especially the bit about the pit bull. Has it survived and been found a new home – I guess not with an injury such as the one described? The one thing that I always hang onto when reading stories like this is that these fantastic people do actually manage to save and home a lot of dogs that would otherwise not have made it. If it was not for these and many other heroes around the world, a lot more dogs would suffer.

    Great post!

  • Lisa

    Great advice from all of these folks re: remaining positive. However, that’s easy to say and harder to do. When you are so emotionally involved that things keep you upset, how do you go about steeling yourself from those emotions? I would love to volunteer more but I just can’t seem to handle the idea that some of these marvelous animals have been deliberately hurt and some will be killed for no reason other than lack of care (in the world) and space (in the shelter). I am planning to start a senior dog sanctuary and I’m hoping that this will give me a way to help while also being able to “handle it.” Ideas? Thanks!

  • Hi Robert,
    Thanks so much for inquiring about the pit bull. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with a host of other medical problems and our vet felt the kindest thing to do was to put him out of his suffering. The good news is, he was absolutely loved and attended to in his final days. I spent as many hours as I could with him, and I’m grateful he was able to finally know affection and devotion. He was comfortable and surrounded by caring hands when he passed.

  • Hi Lisa,
    I just interviewed a woman who only adopts seniors. I was so happy. I wish you all the luck in opening and running a sanctuary for senior dogs. As everyone noted, it’s best to keep a clear head and know that you are doing something important and good. And as hard as it can be at times, focus on the positive.
    I re-read a lot of the comments from people here. With all the publicity on animal abuse, it is important to read and be with people who are fighting the good fight. –Best, Michele

  • Thanks Robert, Leslie Smith answered your question. It is heart wrenching, and there is also a lot of good in the animal welfare movement. –Best, Michele

  • Carol Hupp

    thanks Michele, I can see why she is one of your heroes!

  • Sue McGuey

    As always Michele your articles are informative & of interest!~
    Have forwarded this to Facebook!~
    Thanks so much!~

  • I can so relate to Leslie Smith. I also work full time at a day job but volunteer one day a week each week to my local shelter assessing dogs. I create kennel sheets to get these fur-babies adopted or at least help in aiding in their adoption. It does help but it is also trying sometimes. I just try and think ok so lets help the ones before me right now! Here and now and not worry about the few faces that are not there that day and they did not get adopted. I know what happened but it is like an unspoken nature there. they tell me of the fur-babies that got adopted or rescued and we just don’t mention the ones that didn’t. I cried constantly the first two months volunteering there and some said why go back? I had to cause those dogs knew me as the “cookie lady” and each would greet me with smiling faces and could not wait for me to pass and give them love, kisses, attention and yes cookies.

    I love all my extended fur-babies there and I’m especially happy when they get a new home while I’m there. Gotta love it. My husband has said I can volunteer but please don’t bring any home. He has said he is surprised that I have actually held up to that bargain and it has been over a year now volunteering there.

  • Thank you so much Dena for all you do to help animals. You are a hero too!–Michele

  • Thank you Sue!–Michele

  • Thanks Michele for sharing this great article about all of these heroes and I thank them for all they do, I have volunteered at our local shelter here in Martinsville, IN. and have donated food and blankets to them and my heart does break for all these babies and they are all so special and would love to bring all of them home if I could.

  • Valentine

    Great post, Michele. I also volunteer at my local shelter. I just tell myself that all of the pets will find great homes. We are a small shelter and do a lot of positive advertising and public relations work. And we follow up with our adoptees. It’s great and sad at times. I just want all cats and dogs to have loving homes.

  • Tom

    Excellent advise as usual. these are amazing people.

  • Jasmine

    I volunteer at my local animal shelter. Thankfully, it is a no-kill shelter. Still, I want to take them all home with me. And as Leslie said, it’s great being their when adoptions happen, and you know the cats and dogs are going to loving homes. I just hate it though when people bring in pets that they don’t seem to try to help. It can be an emotional ride, but like Leslie said, “we have to do this.”

  • Kim

    Thanks Michele!! These people are all so amazing!! I wish we had millions like them!!

  • Dominick

    What a great group of caring people. They are leaders and we should follow their advice and take care of animals like them.

  • Annie

    Thanks for this. It is hard volunteering at a shelter, but it is so important. I take my children to walk dogs, and they are learning valuable lessons.

  • Shannon

    I just book marked your site. this is a great piece with such important advice. I love these people. They are so caring.

  • Judy Boone

    All the people who care about and help the “helpless” are the best this world has to offer– I have a family of rescue ferals as well as my own fur family Ive done volunteer work at my “humane So.” hardest heartbreaking job ever !!God bless the animals

  • Tom

    Bless all of you who help animals.

  • nancy

    I love your site Michele! Thank you for this post. For those of us who do rescue, we do put our feeling aside when we spot danger or something that is too tough for words. After reporting and rescuing animals from a puppy mill, I had to talk to a few good friends and I usually go out for a beer. I really need to relax and surround myself with good people because I get so mad at some of the things I see. I do like animals better than most people, but as I said, I surround myself with others who love me and who share my love of animals. Thank you for this piece.

  • Cheryl

    I found my dog at my local shelter 3 years ago, and have been visiting/volunteering there ever since. As one of your readers said, it makes you feel good to volunteer.

  • Gary

    I volunteer at my local shelter every Wednesday. I have cats at home, and love em dearly. However, at the shelter, I get my dog fix there. Everyone should volunteer. It makes you feel better.

  • Evelyn

    What a wonderful site Michele. Leslie, Will, Gene, and Mike are all heroes,and as you mentioned so are the people who volunteer everyday. Thank you!

  • Ed

    Great heroes indeed! And I see heroes everyday at my local shelter. The people who work and who volunteer their time there. Thanks for giving us all recognition.

  • Winnie

    My daughter loves cats but we don’t have one because my husband is allergic. So we volunteer at our local shelter.

  • Sheryl

    Lovely, Michele! As the post says, when dealing with tough situations think of the animals and try to leave one’s emotions outside. It’s hard, but oh so worth it when you do rescue work.

  • Ruby

    Volunteering at our house is a family thing. We all volunteer at our church, at our church’s soup kitchen, and at our local shelter. It’s a good way to give back to your community and to show/teach your kids about helping others–both 2 and 4 legged.

  • Christopher

    Very moving and thank you for acknowledging these people and sharing their advice with us. I, too, volunteer at a kill shelter, and at times it is so hard. But at least I know I am sharing my time and love with these beautiful creatures.

  • Karen

    My son and I walk dogs at our local shelter. It is so important that they get out, get exercise, and know that they are loved. Thank you Michele for this excellent article.

  • Barbara

    Like one of your other readers to Pet News and Views, I met my boyfriend–now husband–by volunteering at our local shelter. I knew my Mr. Right had to love animals. We each rescued two cats and one dog–it’s a big family.

  • Tom

    Hey Michele, another great article. Thank you. Very touching. I also volunteer at my local shelter. Every shelter is in need of good volunteers. All it takes is an hour a week to walk a few dogs, feed the dogs and cats, play with the dogs and cats, clean up, and you will meet great people volunteering.

  • Colby

    My mom used to rescue cats and dogs, and I do the same.

  • Annette

    Wow, Leslie, Will, Gene, and Mike deserve hugs. They are wonderful people.

  • Selina

    I wish everyone would follow their lead and volunteer. At times it is hard, but overall, like Leslie said, “I would feel worse not doing this.” Thanks Michele!

  • […] other day, I read a facinating post on the Pet News and Views blog called   “Heroes on the Frontlines of Animal Rescue“. The article features three of the many special people who help to look after helpless and […]

  • Great moving article Michele. My boyfriend and I volunteer at our local shelter. I actually met him there when we both went their to volunteer to walk dogs. That was 2 years ago, and we still volunteer, walk dogs together and have rescued 2 dogs that get along well.

  • Kay

    What beautiful people. I also volunteer at my local shelter. I play with the cats. It’s so much fun for me. I do feel both sad and happy when they are adopted. Sad because I will miss them, but much happier because I know they will go to good homes.

  • Jill

    Thank you Michele…I thought this was a very good article….as all your articles are.

  • Tami

    You gotta love these heroes. thanks for sharing this great advice. Rescuing is hard, and rewarding at the same time.

  • Chase

    I knew about Will Travers and the Born Free Foundation, Mike Arms and HWAC, and Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary, and now I’m glad I got to read about Leslie Smith of dogtime.com. She is amazing, a really beautiful soul.

  • Casandra

    Michele, you have a great blog, and this is such a moving piece. Thank you for the great advice and for profiling these great folks.

  • Lilian

    Great post on the Heroes on the Frontlines of Animal Rescue. All are deserving of being honored. Thank you.

  • Don

    They are heroes! Thanks Michele

  • Aurora

    Just beautiful. When I get down, and think about the mistreatment of animals, I will turn to this post. Really beautiful people.

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