There's no question that spending time with animals has a positive impact on your life. A body of research shows that pets provide their owners with purpose, opportunities for exercise, unconditional love and social interaction, along with lowered stress and a faster rebound from illness.
Unfortunately, not everyone is able to live with a pet. Buildings may not welcome animals, partners or children may have allergies or the daily responsibilities of pet ownership just may not fit with some budgets or travel schedules. Happily, volunteering at your local rescue center or shelter is a great alternative. These facilities need much more than extra hands to clean cages or lead walks; they value a range of skills from photography to marketing. The ASPCA's Shelter Finder can help you get started by locating sites in your area.
Many centers, like the Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Fairfax, Va., have reached out to their communities to recruit volunteers in midlife and beyond who have time and ideas to spare. "Some of the volunteers in our area come from high-profile jobs," says Kristen Auerbach, the outreach program manager. "They have a lifetime of knowledge to share and skills and abilities that they can bring to the shelter."
Here are 10 ways you can help brighten an animal's life — and your own:
- Apply your skills. It takes many talents to run a shelter, from animal care to bookkeeping to legal aid. While full-time employees take on the brunt of these responsibilities, they may welcome the chance to share the load with someone already in the know.
- Work the phones. A key role for shelter staffers is the screening of potential adopters. Volunteers are needed to conduct phone interviews, check references, make follow-up calls or raise money. This work can often be done from home.
- Be a calming influence. If you deal well with pressure, you could help man the hotline. "When someone calls us to give up a pet, they're often stressed," Auerbach says. "A volunteer can be empathetic on the phone." This is especially helpful since full-time staffers may be unable to focus on such calls as they are pulled in several different directions managing the center.
- Get your hands dirty cleaning. Shelters typically have no shortage of volunteers eager to walk dogs or cuddle kittens, while other essential tasks like laundry and dishes quietly pile up. If you've got experience keeping house, consider helping out. Ann Sanders of the Humane Society of Saline County in Bauxite, Ariz., says one dedicated retiree comes in to do the laundry and floors, while "others help by unfolding newspapers to be used in the cages, washing bowls and taking aluminum cans to be recycled." These roles also provide plenty of one-on-one time with the animals.
- Take mug (or pug) shots. Rushed photos of a frightened, uncomfortable dog or cat don't excite potential owners. If you're patient with animals and good with a camera, offer to snap some heartwarming headshots or action photos.
- Be a profiler. Detailed descriptions of pets' personalities are more likely to attract potential owners than dry lists of breed attributes. "A pal that will greet you each night with a tennis ball and a wagging tail" is more intriguing than "a playful pup." Offer to spend some time with a center's animals and punch up the descriptions on its website or the animals' kennel cards.
- Meet and greet. Excellent people skills are always needed on adoption days or at special events. You can welcome visitors, escort them to cages or just be on hand to help with screening or paperwork.
- Be an advocate. If you're passionate about animals, step up and promote the cause. You could raise awareness about adoption or spaying/neutering clinics in your area, or make a push for more pressing needs, like advocating for a dog that needs life-saving surgery.
- Get kids involved. Many young people love helping animals, but in most locales, on-site shelter volunteers have to be 18. If you have grandkids or know of a local scout troop or youth service group, inspire them to run an off-site fundraising project or food drive, then lead the way in showing them how to get results.
- Open your home. If a short-term pet fits your lifestyle better than a permanent companion, consider fostering. Animals that are recuperating, expecting or just not dealing well with life at a shelter will appreciate a quiet, temporary home. "Rabbits are great options to foster," Auerbach says. "They can be kept in contained spaces and they benefit tremendously from time spent outside of the shelter."
Most shelters or rescues are willing to work around whatever time commitment you can offer. Some keep a list of seasonal helpers on hand to call in during the summer or holidays when regular staffers may be unavailable.
(MORE: 6 Best Small Dogs for Your Empty Nest)
Not sure what to do, but eager to get involved? Just reach out or drop in. "We are open to what people have to offer," says Lucy Monette of the Humane Society of Pinellas in Clearwater, Fla. "If somebody has a particular skill they believe would benefit us, we'll see how they can help."
Once you get involved, you'll discover that helping to turn around the life of a homeless animal can be the best feeling of all, one you'll want to experience over and over again.