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Disgruntled or Caring Volunteers?

By Michele C. Hollow of Pet News and Views

I accompanied a volunteer who went to Animal Care & Control’s (AC&C) Manhattan shelter to rescue Buddy. Buddy, a one-and-a-half-year old Rottweiler mix, came bounding out of the shelter with a slight upper respiratory infection. He was on the kill list, and if John and his rescue group did not intervene, Buddy would be dead.

Buddy had no business being on the kill list. He had a treatable condition, and was happy to greet us and go for a walk. John was going to take Buddy to a veterinarian to be evaluated before he would put him up for adoption through the rescue.

The next stop was to rescue 20 cats from the Brooklyn AC&C. Here a few FeLV cats were put in the same carrier as healthy cats. FeLV is Feline leukemia virus that is easily transmitted from cat to cat via saliva or nasal secretions. If it isn’t treated, it can be lethal. John (I am only using his first name because I don’t want him to be banned from rescuing cats and dogs from AC&C) told me that cats aren’t tested for FeLV until just before they leave the shelter. He said, “Now if all cages are properly sanitized daily and before each new occupant and everyone always washes up between handling every cat, I suppose that would be okay. But they don’t and it isn’t okay.”

Many AC&C volunteers have complained to management about unsanitary conditions, healthy animals getting sick because they are kept in close quarters with sick animals, and unresponsiveness to their suggestions on hosting fundraisers and promoting animal adoptions. One volunteer with a background in public relations and marketing was told that her services were not needed and that she should just continue walking dogs. AC&C has a massive undertaking. They operate the animal shelter system for all of New York City. Julie Bank, AC&C’s executive director, estimates that there are about 500 animals at each of its facilities in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. The Bronx and Queens just handle intake. When an animal is relinquished in the Bronx or Queens it is transferred to one of AC&C’s full service shelters. Ms. Bank says there are many disgruntled volunteers.

I’ve heard this before from other animal shelter directors—that volunteers think they know how to run shelters when they don’t. So, they are either not listened to, are asked to stop making suggestions, and if they persist, are banned from the shelters. Are these caring volunteers or trouble makers? I spoke with Mike Arms, former director of North Shore Animal League and president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center (HWAC) in CA. Back in 2001, he turned down the job of executive director at AC&C. He is aware of the problems that exist today, and said that HWAC depends on its volunteers.

“We count on our volunteers,” he says, “treat them with the utmost respect, and always listen to their suggestions.” One such HWAC volunteer, who also gives her time delivering Meals on Wheels, noticed that many of the clients with pets often shared their food, which meant that they were not getting a full meal and that their pets where not getting the essential nutrition they need. “She suggested we start a program that provides food to homebound pet owners who are part of the Meals on Wheels program,” says Mr. Arms. “That is how our AniMeals program got started.”

Many volunteers at AC&C have tried suggesting similar programs. Those who try to implement change, get blacklisted. Some leave and volunteer at other shelters; others keep quiet and stay. They remain because they have formed attachments to the cats and dogs.

The reason for this post is that I do listen to Pet News and Views’ readers. I hear great stories from happy volunteers at a number of shelters around the country. I also hear from a number of volunteers who are miserable because the shelters they volunteer at are poorly mismanaged, and when they speak up they are asked to leave. I would appreciate your comments on how you are implementing change at your local animal shelter.

16 comments to Disgruntled or Caring Volunteers?

  • Volunteers should be welcomed, trained, and praised. We need all we can get.

  • This is such a good topic. Thank you for delving into it.
    I know I have been in situations in which I had so little time and so much stress that
    there was no space left over to open to a volunteer. sounds like the employees of ACC may need some support so that they can support healthy human practices toward the volunteers and the animals in their care.I am not condoning the bad treatment and i hope that the animals will be cared for in much better ways soon.

  • It took a county employee strike for volunteers to prove their worth at our county animal shelter. The volunteers stepped in and ran the shelter–and ran it well–for 2 weeks before they were taken seriously. Now we work side-by-side with county employees as valued partners. And since there have been so many budget cuts, now they couldn’t keep the shelter open without us. Much of the credit goes to our very capable, very hard-working volunteer coordinator.

  • That’s wonderful Debbie. I would love to know which shelter it is.–Thanks, Michele

  • Mick

    Unfortunately, it’s the animals that suffer. Thank you for posting this and shining a light on a pervasive problem.

  • I spoke to an editor at the NY Daily News who read this post. In regard to my comment about the Bronx and Queens intake, she wrote: “This is a little more complicated. There was a law passed in 2000 that required full service shelters.
    It was amended in 2002 or 2003 to give the city more time and then it was totally repealed last year. All of those actions required a full vote of the New York City Council. In return for repealing the bill, the city agreed to pump more money into NYC Animal Care & Control for field services, etc.” Here is a link to the NY Daily News’ story: http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-08-01/local/29859995_1_animal-shelters-ac-c-stray-cats.

    And here is the good news: this editor said she will write an article about AC&C shortly. We need to keep this issue in the media. We need to contact City Council members and the Mayor about AC&C and other animal abuses. –Thanks for reading and for sharing–Michele

  • Anne

    Michele, I see how much you care about animals and about your readers. Thanks for going that extra mile for us. And I wish there would be changes at AC&C.

  • Laura

    They need new workers at AC&C.

  • Sarah

    I love the example you give of Helen Woodward Animal Center. I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Arms once. He is a prince, and like you he cares deeply about the animals and about the volunteers.

  • Annie

    We need to form a volunteer organization for former AC&C volunteers.

  • Nicole

    This is a great topic, and unfortunately you’re right. Many shelters are mismanaged and in turn, they’re losing great volunteers. The management team seems to be very ungrateful when in reality, these shelters would be nothing without it’s volunteers! I think ALL of the management at EVERY shelter should take this article as a wake up call and start respecting and appreciating the volunteers instead of making their lives miserable. We’re only volunteering for the animals sake, not to get brought into the drama by management.

  • Diane

    The NYCACC is a hell hole. They do not care about any of the animals there and they have an agenda to kill. There is a kill list every night. They kill 20 to 30 dogs and cats every day if they are not rescued by another rescue grop who is willing to take them in. Of course they shun volunteers who actually give a damn because it goes against there agenda which is to kill. The conditions there are horrible and it sickens me to know that a place like that is being funded by one of the best cities in the world NY. There needs to be more news coverage and people need to be made aware of what is really happening at the NYCACC.

  • Hi Diane,
    I just heard from an editor at a major NYC daily who promised more coverage! Believe me, I want to spread the word on a wider scale, and we all need to share, share, share and let others know what is going on.–Thanks, Michele

  • Thank you Nicole for volunteering, and for all you do. It does make a difference. –Michele

  • Carol Barnes

    The more publicity that can be given to shelters like the ones in NYC, the better. Hopefully it will put pressure on the politicians to do something about their shelters. Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg seems to not care about the animals so until he is out of office it is unlikely any change will come. And, it’s not just NYC, the shelters in the South kill hundreds of animals every day. Doesn’t say much for our society and out morals.

  • Michele, I had always found a great bit of turf-protection among people in animal rescue, both among organizations and their practices, and among individuals within organizations. I had long ago wanted a career in animal sheltering using my management, marketing, public relations and design skills and began by volunteering at a few shelters. Years ago I quit volunteering and gave up that idea and simply rescued on my own. Instead I donate art and services to the shelters and help to promote them through other means such as donations with purchases or my own little online auctions, but I still won’t volunteer, much as I’d love to pet and cuddle all those wonderful cats and dogs.