In the U.S. alone, 7.6 million animals enter the shelter system every year. 2.7 million are adopted, and 2.7 million are euthanized. These are the facts, but behind these statistics, there are real dogs, real cats, and real people who bathe them, feed them, dress their wounds, and scratch their ears.
I’m sure there are some people who think of working in a shelter as “just a job.” This isn’t about those people.
I asked Melissa Fogarty, Kennel Supervisor at the Hempstead Town Animal Shelter, a large municipal shelter in Long Island, about the people who work on the ground, day in and day out, with the animals. I asked her about the people who walk dogs, play fetch, and clean cages — the people who think of the shelter dogs as their own.
I then asked Melissa’s coworkers to tell me what they wish they could tell the public about what they see.
This isn’t a story about a specific animal shelter or even animal shelters in general. It’s smaller and more personal than that. This is, quite simply, a story about six individual people who trusted me enough to tell me the truth. This is what they said.
Melissa Fogarty: As shelter staffers, we cry, a lot. But resilience becomes a huge describing word for both our characters and the animals we care for. It’s remarkable how much an individual with a big heart can endure and also what these abused and neglected animals can endure.
Shelter animals aren’t broken or bad — they’re misunderstood. Don’t be put off by adopting an adult because they came in as a stray. Stray animals aren’t unpredictable or misbehaved.
My staff works hard, and it really is a thankless job. No one sees the hours we put in and how early or late we come in. We don’t get paid for this extra time. We just do what we have to because it’s what’s best for the animals in our care.
For all the pain, however, there’s also a lot of joy, like seeing an animal who is so terrified start to open up. Jackie and I once worked with a dog named Cleo who was surrendered by her family. She was terrified and wouldn’t let anyone get near her, so we sat in her kennel, coaxing her towards us with cat food. It took us 45 minutes and a lot of cat food to get her, but she eventually came around.
Cleo was pulled by one of our rescue partners and now lives with kids. I’ve had to do this with a lot of dogs, but she was the first. I’ve lost a lot of pieces of my heart, but this job and these animals have really helped me find myself. I had no direction for a very long time, but this has become my direction.
Cindy Gomez: I wish people didn’t judge these dogs by the way they look or the way they act in the cage. Have patience with them. Give them a second chance.
My heart breaks when I see a new animal come in confused and scared. My heart breaks for the seniors who have to sit in a cage all day. An owner-surrender pet is petrified because they have never been in a loud environment. Sometimes they won’t even eat because they are so stressed out.
These dogs love the staff and volunteers to death. They see us as their owners. We are all they have until they find a forever home. When I see some of these dogs go outside to run around and play with toys, it makes me so happy and relieved. Even if it’s only for those ten minutes that they are out.
When I see an animal go home, it makes it all worthwhile. Any time I’m upset or stressed, I can always count on the dogs who get those happy endings to lift me up.
Maria Charalambous: When animals are surrendered because their owners no longer “want them anymore,” we are the ones who cry as we walk them away from the only thing they have ever known. No one sees what we see. It takes a very special and strong-willed person to mentally and physically handle working in a shelter.
All people see is a dog in a cage, and some think it’s cruel. Little do they know, some of their situations now are far better than where they were before. The people who abuse these dogs only get a slap on the wrist, and we’re left with picking up the broken pieces, wondering if they will ever get their hands on another animal.
Sometimes you can’t save them all — and that is heart-wrenching. Sometimes these animals have suffered such mental anguish by being so abused by their former owners that it is hard for them to live a carefree, happy life.
There are adopters who come in and only want puppies and constantly say, “Oh, you only have pit bulls” and “pit bulls are bad dogs.” We feel like shaking them and screaming at the top of our lungs, “There is no such thing as a bad dog…. only bad owners.” They are mutts. Take a look at them. None of these dogs looks the same.
The most rewarding feeling in the world is finding an animal a home after he or she has been sitting months — or even years — in a shelter. Suddenly, you remember why you do what you do, and your heart is full again.
Alex Andrea: People don’t know that we leave our families at 5:00 AM to go help and feed our furry babies at 6:00 AM. When someone buys a little puppy and he gets a little bigger and they decide they don’t want him anymore… we are the people who will be there waiting with open arms.
People don’t know that we get emotionally attached and devoted to individual animals. When you come in to adopt my long-time buddy, don’t be weirded out or feel bad for me because I’m crying as I hug him goodbye. I saw him in kennel #57 for three straight years, and it’s not that I want him to stay. It’s just that I’ve waited for this moment for a long time, and it’s finally here!
People don’t know that the little guy barking loudly at you isn’t trying to scare you. He’s merely telling you ,”Hey! Do you see me?! Over here! Over here! Pick me!”
Malik Johnson: One of the things that nobody tells us about working in an animal shelter is that there’s a high demand between working with the animals and assisting the public. We are constantly busy, feeding, walking, and doing meet and greets.
The dogs always come first, and sometimes the shelter can get so busy that we may not always reach guests within a decent time frame. But we always try and keep everyone a priority, and we want these dogs to be adopted so badly. I wish people would be patient on those busy days, because these dogs are worth it.
Jacqueline Panjoj: My good friend and coworker gave me a necklace that hit me hard. It says, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Well, my soul definitely awakened the moment I started at the shelter. I had grown up with animals prior to working at the shelter, but you truly need to work at the shelter to understand what they go through. It opens your eyes. Seeing the animals caged, and seeing them repeating the same schedule day in and day out, makes you want to go above and beyond for them.
When you work at the shelter, you fall in love with the animals numerous times. I personally have lost count. But you also get your heart broken multiple times, especially when a dog is returned. This makes our jobs overwhelming and extremely stressful.
I remember my first week at the shelter. I fell asleep on my lunch break and fell asleep driving home. You get physically, mentally, and emotionally tired. It also gets frustrating when you work with people who are not passionate like you are.
I have been out of the shelter for a month now because I had surgery. I don’t miss the people as much, but I sure do miss the animals, especially my scared ones. I get so happy when an animal who once tried to bite or shook like crazy starts to open up and begins to wag. It’s the best feeling ever knowing you did something for them. And it was probably the first time a human did something right by them.
There are days at the shelter that make you want to throw in the towel. But then you ask yourself, “Who’s going to walk or take care of these dogs?” It will always be the same answer: “No, I can’t leave them.”