A Year in the Life of the Animal Shelter

I was recently discussing my one-year anniversary as executive director of the Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter (FAAS), when a friend asked me if I had ever been bitten. Not by an animal, I said, but those human bites are the worst! My friend laughed with me, but we both knew it wasn’t totally a joke. (In full disclosure, a rabbit once nibbled on my arm as I was holding him for a video shoot; but he thought my arm was food and it was more of a pinch than a bite.)

The majority of the people we encounter in running an open-intake shelter like FAAS are pretty special. They are the people who come to adopt; to open their homes to homeless animals and provide a lifetime of love and care. They literally save lives. They are the people who volunteer. They show up week after week, help take care of our animals, give them love and remind them that they, too, deserve a forever home. They are the good samaritans who see a stray animal on the street and go out of their way to rescue it and bring it to the shelter. They are our donors, the people who support our charitable programs that allow FAAS to run the open-intake Alameda Animal Shelter like a private humane society, ensuring that more than 94 percent of the animals who come through our doors each year are saved. 

They are also the people who choose to dedicate their professional time and skills as employees of the shelter. It can be physically and emotionally demanding work, often driven by sudden-crisis situations. We never know how many strays or owner-surrendered pets will be brought to the shelter on any given day, often pushing our outdated and aging facility to its limits. Recently, six roosters and four hens were confiscated by the police and brought to the shelter. That is what life is like in an open-intake shelter that functions 365 days a year.

On the flip side are the small, but very vocal, percentage of people who only find fault. These “biters” can not only be demoralizing, but also frightening. In the past year, our staff has been physically threatened, screamed at, cursed at (it’s fascinating how versatile a certain transitive verb that starts with an “f” can be), labeled with vile homophobic slurs and even spat on. One person demeaned our staff by insisting that none of us care about animals and only work at the shelter to “get rich.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Our crime? We were simply doing our best to take care of animals who, through no fault of their own, ended up in the shelter.

The people who complain the loudest tend to be the entitled ones, often using social media to amplify their grievances even before we’ve had a chance to work with them and understand the situation. They are usually upset because we don’t have the “perfect” pet for them, or the pet they wanted has been adopted to a home that can provide the best care for that particular animal. 

We gently remind them that our shelter — like so many other shelters — is full of other animals in need of a home. Rarely do we turn away a potential adopter. Instead, we counsel them on what pet would most likely thrive in their home. It might not be the “perfect” animal they came to see, but it just might be the perfect pet for them. 

Some people get upset because their animal has been impounded by the police and they don’t want to pay the associated fees. It’s important to note that FAAS has no control over how these situations are resolved; our job is to hold and care for the animal while the city’s animal-control function manages the legal process.

Do we make mistakes? Absolutely! No organization is perfect and we are always evaluating ways to work better and more effectively for the residents and animals of Alameda. When we make mistakes we do our best to learn from them and, when practical, make changes. 

But when people attack my staff and question their integrity, I take it personally. I wish they could see them coming in at night to transport an abused and suffering dog — left in a box to die — to an emergency vet; shedding a tear when the veterinarian says there is no hope; and holding the sweet boy so that his final moments in what was a terrible life can be filled with peace and love.

I wish they could see the tears of joy when a long-time resident of the shelter is finally adopted, and how everyone comes to the front to say goodbye to an animal they’ve come to love. I wish they could understand how much time we invest in every animal, doing our best with limited resources to prepare each animal for adoption. I wish they could understand that working at FAAS is not just a job, it’s a calling.

A peer who ran another shelter told me that to be successful in the executive director role one needs  “nerves of steel.” One year into the job, I now understand what she meant. But I also know that underneath those nerves of steel we have to possess a driving passion for the work, unending compassion for both animals and people, the ability to articulate a vision of what animal welfare can and should look like in the future, and the strength to stay positive in the face of constant challenges. 

So the next time a person “bites,” I’m going to focus on all the good and positive things FAAS is achieving, all the exciting changes we’re planning for the future and all the hopeful and wonderful people who make our work possible.  The people and animals of Alameda deserve nothing less.