Animal welfare volunteers provide support to their organizations in ways that are as diverse as the volunteers themselves, but what they all have in common, and what connects them and makes them a family, is their passion for animals. Earlier this week, I shared a story about a four-year-old boy who asked for money to be donated to Lincoln Animal Ambassador’s Pet Food Bank, and a nine-year-old boy who helps out at Big Dogs Huge Hearts events. Today I’d like to introduce a twenty-two-year-old college student who volunteered at The Capital Humane Society for two years as part of her veterinarian studies. Like the two boys I featured, growing up with pets led Jenna Rifer to want to help the cause of animal homelessness.
In the most difficult times of her life, pets have helped Jenna Rifer. Because pets have always been her support system, Jenna grew up with the lifetime dream of being a veterinarian. She wants to give back to animals by caring for them and by being their advocate.
Animals have a lot to teach and to give us. My dog is always happy and reminds me that there’s always something to be cheerful about. She also teaches me to love unconditionally. We’ve gotten a lot out of our relationship with each other.
Although the small town where Jenna grew up didn’t have a shelter, even in high school she started to research into how to help homeless animals. When she moved to Lincoln to attend university as a pre-vet student, she worked at the Belmont Vet Center and spent two years volunteering at The Capital Humane Society as a vet staff. She also served as an officer for the UNL No-Kill Advocacy Club and, when the opportunity arose, took a trip to the Best Friends Society to help care for dogs, cats, horses, and all kinds of other animals.
At the Belmont Vet Center, Jenna worked as a kennel assistant. Her duties included providing care, food, and exercise for boarding animals, monitoring the health of animals, sterilizing and maintaining equipment, and assisting with veterinarian staff as needed.
Here, Jenna experienced educational moments. She got to observe spay/neuter surgeries. She saw an older female dog that had an infected uterus. The vet in charge remarked that most pets end up spayed/neutered one way or another: If an owner doesn’t ask for the procedure when their pet is young, chances are the pet will be back when older due to behavior or disease. Jenna was learning firsthand the importance of early spaying/neutering.
Naturally, there were also blissful moments. For example, there was the time when the Belmont Vet Center accepted a dog from an overcrowded shelter in Texas. “The dog was so afraid. I laid there and tried to get him used to me. He was sixty pounds and I had to carry him. I’ve never seen a dog so afraid. The most he would do is move a few steps. A few months after he was in a foster home, I got to see him and he was bouncing about.”
I asked Jenna about why she decided to work at an open admissions shelter. True, an open admissions will take any homeless pet that is brought to them and, unlike a no-kill shelter, they never have to turn ones away. At the same time, unlike a no-kill shelter, open admission shelters often don’t have enough resources to care for pets with special needs, including those with behavior issues or those that are seniors. Moreover, when they run out of room, they have no option but to euthanize. Jenna admitted that working in an open admissions shelter was tough, but also said that she feels these shelters are where the most need exists, because the lives of the animals truly depend on being adopted.
As a veterinary staff volunteer with the Capital Humane Society, she helped out at the Admissions & Assessment Center. Some of her duties included holding animals, giving vaccinations, assisting with pre-surgery and post-surgery care, and administering medications and treatments.
Jenna pointed out that whether or not she volunteered in one, it wouldn’t change the outcome for a homeless pet. And so what she tried to do at the Capital Humane Society was to give the best support she could to the animals. She found it cool to see everything that workers at the Capital Humane Society try to do for animals. Jenna gave an example of how some dogs aren’t bothered by living in a kennel while others are. The latter can become afraid and even aggressive, or shy and even shutdown. Regular exercise and play can help the dogs from going stir crazy, which then makes them more adoptable. A similar situation exists for the cats. In a small kennel, they would get mean. With a larger space to roam and play, the cats would be more relaxed and social.
It’s important to help animals because we created this problem of homelessness. We made animals into pets and we overpopulated them and so we should work to change this problem.
Jenna experienced her share of sad moments. In answer to my question about what it was like when an animal got brought into the shelter, Jenna told me, “It really sucked. Owners will walk in to give up their pet. It was incredibly sad seeing the animal realize he wasn’t going back with the owner. He could be there forever.”
Jenna also found it eye-opening to see all the sick, neglected, and abused cats that would get brought to the shelter. She couldn’t believe “how poorly some people take care of their animals”. Seeing an older animal walk through the kennels also broke her heart. “You think that could be my pet.”
But there were also exhilarating moments. Jenna told of the amazing transformation of a pit bull that had been brought in with mange. The female dog was hairless and covered with scabs. “It was very scary.” Jenna and other volunteers took turns taking the pit bull out of her kennel, walking her, and socializing her. “Later on, I saw her and her hair was all grown back.”
Jenna feels proud of her time spent volunteering at the Capital Humane Society. She also ended up with an unexpected surprise from her two years there, her nine-year-old Cocker Spaniel, Lucy. “I wasn’t planning to rescue, but then I saw Lucy, and I kept thinking about her. Lucy had issues: she had underwent a hard surgery, needed to be housebroken, and expressed horrible separation anxiety. College was hard for me. When I adopted Lucy, she became my support system. We helped each other through our hard times.”
Jenna also served as an officer with UNL’s No-Kill Advocacy Group, whose mission is to make Lincoln a no-kill city. “We partnered with rescues. They’d let us know when they needed our help. We’d help them with events. For one rescue, we went out to just play with dogs. Whatever they asked for, we tried to make it help.” The group also visited The Cat House, where they made toys for the cats, and helped with their care.
When I met Jenna this past spring, I asked for her thoughts about how those involved with saving homeless pets should promote them to increase their changes of being fostered and/or adopted. Her favorite type of promotion are those which visualize for the owner how a pet might fit into their home. And, going along with what research across the country now seems to suggest, she recommended, “Get pictures of the dog enjoying life. Fosters can tell what positives there are. Write a story that makes animals easier to relate to and feel more like companions.”
I also asked Jenna about her dream for future shelters and she said, “Having a no-kill shelter where dogs were known to be friendly and people could bring their dogs for daycare to see them and then people could see pets as companions.”
Jenna is now finished with her studies at UNL and is headed this fall to Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine through the UNL/ISU Professional Program in Veterinary Medicine, where she will pursue a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. I wish to first to say congratulations on her graduation, and second to wish her all the best for fulfilling her dream of making a difference in the lives of animals by becoming a veterinarian.