Interview with Author Valerie Ingram

After becoming a volunteer with Husker Cats in 2014, I started to follow online groups that also took care community cats. One day a post appeared about a picture book that had been published on the topic. Being a book reviewer, I naturally contacted the author and requested a copy of Nobody’s Cats. Since then, Valerie Ingram and I have exchanged emails about many topics including our former teaching careers and our passion for homeless cats. When she released a new book this past fall, Out in the Cold, she graciously sent me a copy. It’s an honor to know Valerie, who is an advocate for homeless animals, and to introduce her to you.

valerieingramValerie was born and raised in Burns Lake, a small and rural community of northern British Columbia. She grew up on a farm, and critters of all kinds were always a part of her life. After spending twelve years teaching in her home town, Valerie started the Lakes Animal Friendship Society with her husband in 2008. While humane education is her passion, she also runs Lakeside Legacy B&B, and offers free stays for anyone in animal welfare to help recharge their batteries and combat compassion fatigue. The Lakes Animal Friendship Society is personally funded for the most part, with donations and grants targeted at on-the-ground projects.

ALLISON: What was your favorite part of childhood?

VALERIE: My favorite part of childhood was growing up in a rural and Northern setting. There was so much room to explore, to play. We have four distinct seasons in northern BC, which I think can be so enriching on its own! Ice on the lake, swimming in the summer, snow for sledding and so on. I spent many hours simply observing nature, exploring my surroundings, which of course brought me to many hours of watching critters of all kinds. Everything from the fox living in the sandy bank close to our house to the crows talking to each other in the trees. Loved these moments and memories.

ALLISON: What animal would you most compare yourself to as a child? As an adolescence? Why?

VALERIE: Hmm, compare myself to an animal as a child. That would be a quiet and inquisitive mouse:) I explored, but quietly. I didn’t want to disturb what I was watching. I was often solitary too. Only one older brother and we did not live near any other children my age.

As an adolescent? A horse. I LOVED horses. Grew up on this acreage with a small farm so there were always animals around. I would see the horses so free in the back fields. So happy, so playful. I wished to be that free.

ALLISON: You were once a teacher. What attracted you to the field?

VALERIE: I always wanted to nurture. Nurture a sick kitten, nurture a dying plant, nurture the children I was a nanny for growing up. It seemed natural to work with children in schools. As I spent the last few years teaching formally, I found myself inadvertently rescuing dogs and cats, and I’d bring dogs to school to teach the children about their care. It seemed a rather natural transition to move from the classroom (which was consuming) to a volunteer basis of coming in to talk to the children about the care and compassion and responsible pet guardianship of our pets.

ALLISON: You now dedicate your time to animal welfare. What drew you to this line of work?

VALERIE: It began with small steps. We felt concern for the well-being of the critters (seeing frozen dogs at the end of their chains with no shelter), safety of our children (watching students on the playground have their food snatched from their hands by hungry packs of dogs), and the happiness and health of our families and community (the horror of “dog and cat shoots” as a solution to pet overpopulation, where the community comes to see such things as the norm).

I was fortunate enough to connect with Jean Atthowe, the founder of the Montana Spay/Neuter Task Force early in my education about the problems and solutions. She taught me how an entire community needs to be involved and educated, and programs must respect the traditions and uniqueness of the community. Providing and teaching humane solutions to pet overpopulation and neglect are the key to empowering the local people and bringing about long-term change. As Jean says, we are seeking a “change in attitude that will thus bring a change in behavior through respecting animals and then other living creatures including members of their family, school, and community”.

ALLISON: What accomplishments are you most proud of?

VALERIE: I’m most excited to see how the children have become empowered. To see how after six years of consistently delivering the same message on care, compassion, bite safety and responsibility, that attitudes and behavior CAN be changed. I tell the children that they have the ability to become a “superhero,” that they can save a life by adopting an animal in need.

I’ve seen the unhealthy cycle of pet overpopulation, abuse, and neglect being broken. The children help spread the message on what our pets need to thrive. It was only natural to take the children’s excitement and passion and further showcase their efforts through a newsletter. We started Critter Care News three years ago, showcasing all the remarkable achievements children have made in our community.

Again with the involvement of local children, we created a song called “Teach My Person How to Love Me” in a workshop led by musician Lowry Olafson. This fun and catchy song helps guardians of all ages understand what their pets need. I now use it in all my classroom visits.

ALLISON: What do you find the most challenging?

VALERIE: The most challenging aspect we have faced are the people who are “not dog or cat lovers” and do not “get” why we pour our hearts, souls and resources into what we do. We are firm in our conviction that healthy, happy animals are an important part of happy, healthy families and communities. It’s not just about being “a dog lover”. It is so much more!

Now we are at a point where we have to figure out how we can make our programs more sustainable. On the education front, looking beyond our community we need to find the resources to bring a consistent, high quality and repeated education program to all the schools along our corridor in northern British Columbia. Potential volunteers are few and far between, stretched thin and perhaps not able to make it back to schools on a regular basis. From our experience, persistence and consistency are critical.

ALLISON: Have you seen a difference between United States animal welfare issues and those you find in Canada?

VALERIE: At their root, a lot of the big issues are the same: like socioeconomic conditions, infrastructure, education, cultural differences. But of course the specific, local issues can vary greatly. One size does not fit all in terms of a workable approach! That’s why it is so important to have the grass-roots, community element to all programs. Areas of downtown Phoenix, Arizona and the rural First Nations community of Tachet in British Columbia may both have problems with companion animal overpopulation, but the causes are different meaning that education and other interventions will take different shapes. The sharing of information and materials contributes to the evolution of these programs as different areas try different approaches to deal with local circumstances. Education is the common thread no matter where you are.

ALLISON: Who keeps you going?

VALERIE:  Without my husband’s support, I would not succeed at a fraction of LAFS projects and goals. He is my tech support, grant writer, shoulder to lean on, and a very patient soul! He shares in this building of a community of care, one animal, one student, one family at a time! We share our house with Dusty and Lulu. Both dogs were in desperate need of rescue, and are both failed fosters. Dusty is now the school spokes dog that comes with me to all my classroom visits. He has patiently taught thousands of children how to read his body language and to greet him safely. And Lulu, well, she is a squirrely pooch that keeps my hubby company when he works in the forest to generate the funds to pay for our humane activities!

lakesanimalfriendshipAs noted in the interview, Valerie and her husband created Lakes Animal Friendship Society to help improve animal care and health. The organization focuses on educating the community in various ways.

  • Education Program: Valerie have completed close to 5,000 student visits in the classroom (Pre K to Gr. 12), and seen a tremendous increase in levels of awareness of how to be a responsible pet guardian and stay safe around dogs and cats. Their community education component has included presentation to local groups and dozens of articles in local media.
  • Dog House Program: The couple began small, building houses in their backyard, and then shifting to refurbishing donated older dog houses. Now the program has become a sustainable one through local schools, bringing our total to 200 dog/cat houses for needy critters. School groups volunteer to build and paint these houses. Extension activities include writing and poster contests to “earn” a doghouse.
  • Feeding Program: Thanks to donations from the wealthier southern region of British Columbia and a discounted shipping cost, the organization has been able to distribute four tonnes of food to critters in need, through its food bank and door to door deliveries where the needs are most.
  • Community Animal Care Events: By establishing a connection with Canadian Animal Assistance Team (CAAT), the organization is able to have volunteer vets and techs from across Canada travel to rural areas where animals from lower-income families are in great need of veterinary services. They carry out spaying and neutering, health checks, vaccinations, and deworming on-site in facilities like community halls. They incorporate education into every phase of the clinics they conduct. The entire community is invited to participate or observe at every step.
  • Workshops: The organization host workshops to provide education kits complete with books, activities, and lesson aids for volunteers wanting to bring messages of animal welfare to their schools and community. The majority of the material has been put together as result of networking through individuals, authors, publishers, and other groups.

Reprinted from Allison’s Book Bag. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2016.


Nobody’s Cats & Out of the Cold by Valerie Ingram and Alistair Schroff

If you are creative and care about the welfare of animals, what can you do? If you’re Valerie Ingram and Alistair Schroff, you write children’s picture books. Both Nobody’s Cats and Out of the Cold are based on true stories from northwest British Columbia and profits from the sale of the book go towards the care of animals in that region.

 nobodyscatsNobody’s Cats tells the tale of a boy who saw a tiny black cat shivering in the snow by an old shed. The cat was just one of many that had been born or abandoned  there. A few of the neighborhood boys threw rocks, but one boy stood up for the cats. He even asked adults what he could do to help. A guest who came to his school that spring told the boy that the cats were community cats and showed him how to help. The rest of the story, inspired by two girls who one winter saw cats suffering near their home, tells of how neighbors worked together to bring food and shelter to the cats. In real life, the two girls contacted the local Lakes Animal Friendship Society and then shared what they learned with classmates. Together with their fellow students, the girls raised not only awareness but also funds to cover costs of spaying and neutering  the local homeless cats.

outofthecoldOut of the Cold tells the tale of Molly, a dog whose family kept her chained outside. One day Molly broke free from her yard and tragedy stuck. She was hit by a car. Out of that disaster, however, came some positive results. While at the vet, the family learned of a program that helps with the spay/neuter costs for families in need. In addition, the kids brainstormed and came up with the idea of building a dog house. The rest of the story, inspired by two volunteers with Lakes Animal Friendship Society who knew of too many incidents of dogs freezing to death in the cold northern climate, tells of how the kids shared their idea at shop class and soon the whole class was building outdoor houses for other dogs and cats. In real life, the two volunteers anonymously delivered dog houses due to being uncertain about how their gift would be received. They soon discovered that folks simply lacked resources to build shelters and so the volunteers had an opportunity to educate them about the importance of shelter for animals.

Both picture books include artwork from children in the northwest British Columbia region. Out of the Cold also includes professional illustrations. Each book, besides including an explanation of how they were inspired, also shares ways that people can get involved to help animals. Nobody’s Cats overviews what community cats are and how Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) works. Out of the Cold, while promoting the goal of all pets living indoors, recognizes that other options such as all-weather shelters are needed. One can visit the Lakes Animal Friendship Society to find more information about TNR and instructions to building shelters.

I first heard of Nobody’s Cats through an online Trap-Neuter-Release Community. After I wrote Valerie Ingram to purchase a copy, we stayed in touch. A former teacher like me, she now dedicates most of her time to volunteer work with Lakes Animal Friendship Society. She helps with their creative ventures such as newsletters, but also with the hands-on activities, and is an inspiration to me. I’m honored to introduce you to her educational and entertaining books.

Reprinted from Allison’s Book Bag. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2016.

Why Humane Education?

“We have statistics that show that education does improve animal welfare,” said first female Ontario SPCA chief inspector, Connie O’Mallory. She believes education gives people the knowledge and tools to change and cited supporting statistics. She credited education for an increase in animal welfare compliance rates from 57 percent to over 80 percent.

Lincoln Animal Ambassadors president, Mary Douglas, expressed a similar sentiment. To her, humane education helps people of all ages and all different walks of life. Animal control officer, Agnes Smith, referred to an interaction with a mother who didn’t know that 70 million dogs and cats are homeless. After hearing one of Smith’s presentations, the family committed to volunteer with and to adopt from an animal welfare group. Douglas also pointed out that, “People who don’t have animals or haven’t had animals don’t have any reference as to how animals should be treated or handled.”

And that’s exactly what humane education is: teaching people how to care for animals. The Humane Education Connections reports that a growing body of research that links childhood animal cruelty to later violent and anti-social behavior. The organization believes that education can break this cycle by replacing it with one of compassion, empathy, and responsibility taught through education.

Humane education is at the core of society’s ethical and moral values to treats animals right, said the host of Community Cats Podcast, Stacey LeBaron. “We use education to help bring those values into any community where we may be unsure if the community as a whole is treating their cats with compassion and care.”

Co-founder of Lakes Animal Friendship Society, Valerie Ingram, said that LAFS operates all its programs on the principle that “healthy, happy animals are part of healthy, happy families and communities”.  She said that many social issues are intertwined, and that animal welfare efforts contribute to moving the whole community forward.

The importance of humane education is backed up by statistics and through anecdotal evidence.

Mary Douglas recalled inviting Mayor Beitler to help with an LAA video about spay/neuter. The mayor was reading text provided to him that listed the numbers of cats and dogs which can be born to one male and female in seven years. Douglas says he looked at her and asked, “Have you researched these numbers?  Are they right?” The numbers she said were accurate but, like the mayor, most people have no idea.

She also talked about her presentation to students. “I love seeing their face when I go through a little example of how fast cats can re-produce.  I get a couple of bags of cotton balls—each cotton ball is a cat—and I show how many cats a male and female cat can have in one year along with their offspring. Then another year, etc.  At the end, we have a huge pile of cotton balls. Then I ask them, ‘Are there enough homes to adopt all of these cats?’ They immediately agree “NO!”

Rachel Geller, a Certified Humane Education Specialist, believes that it’s by teaching children to respect animals that we can create a society that is caring and compassionate to animals.

Geller offered the example of a volunteer at a shelter in her area who started bringing her son with her. “Her son had struggled emotionally due to physical and verbal abuse that he’d suffered in the volunteer’s previous marriage,” Geller said. “School was difficult for her son academically, and he was also teased and bullied.” Over time, the volunteer’s son connected and bonded with the cats that were too fearful to respond to most people. Not only did the cats change, but so did her son. “The emotional damage he suffered seemed to fade,” Geller said. “The cats trusted him, and in doing so, the cats restored his trust in people.”

Ingram and her husband have been working in animal welfare for the past eight years. The couple started LAFS to help improve the happiness and health of the community’s animals and families. “We want to help children and communities to take action to reduce the suffering, to change attitudes and behaviors,” she explained. “We want to give everyone hope that change is possible.”

Valerie Ingram described a couple of projects that local youth got involved with through LAFS. Students started a TNR project by raising funds to help spay/neuter, feed, and provide shelter for 400 community cats. The students also contributed artwork and helped write the ending of LAFS’s first picture book, Nobody’s Cats, which told the story of their TNR project. “Thousands of copies of the book are in the hands of students, regional schools, libraries, animal welfare, and humane education groups across North America and beyond,” said Ingram. “So not only are our students being ambassadors for animal welfare within our community, they’re also seeing the ripple of compassion spread.”

Student involvement didn’t end with the TNR project, but continued when a high school class and their teacher decided to build and give away insulated dog houses and community cat boxes. “Now we involve classrooms and families to build houses for their furry family members. To date we have built or refurbished nearly 300 houses for dogs and cats in need, Ingram said.  As with the TNR project, the insulated pet house inspired a LAFS picture book. Out of the Cold would like all pets to be kept indoors but recognizes the need for all-weather shelters for those pets that are kept outside Students similarly helped with artwork and story elements.

The field of humane education is not without challenges.

Mary Douglas sometimes struggles to convince pet owners to change the way they care for their pets. She recounted an incident that happened at a fundraiser at a local restaurant. “There was a car outside in the hot summer of 100 degrees with a [dog] in it. The windows were cracked, and they were parked in the shade of the building, but it was still very hot in the car.”

Douglas discovered the dog belonged to a family who had come to support LAA because through the nonprofit they had been able to spay the dog and receive pet food. She told them that when the outside temperature is just 70 degrees the temperature in a car can reach 100.

“The grandpa explained that the dog would tear things up at the house if they left it home alone, and so they always took it with them,” Douglas said. “I just had to keep reminding them that they loved the dog enough to get it spayed and take care of it, and that it’d be terrible if they came out some day and the dog was dead because it was way too hot in the car.  I hope I convinced them.”

The most challenging aspect of humane education for Valerie Ingram is dealing with the people who aren’t animal lovers and don’t understand those who pour their hearts, souls, and resources into animal welfare. Rachel Geller finds herself in the same predicament. She’s often asked, “Why are you spending your time helping cats or animals? Why aren’t you helping people?” Like Ingram, she believes that when she helps animals, she’s also helping people.

By way of illustration, Geller recounted a call that she received recently through her cat behavior counseling service. A woman wanted help finding a shelter to take her cat that had been in her family since it was a kitten. “The woman had cancer and two children, and was terrified, exhausted, and overwhelmed,” said Geller. “Amidst all of this, she had an older cat and she was feeling bad because she couldn’t give the cat enough attention.”

Geller says that she and the woman talked for a long time. Eventually Geller told her, “Your children are stressed because you’re sick. But they’ll feel even more stressed by losing this beloved family pet.” Geller also reminded the lady that cats are basically loyal, caring, and perceptive animals. “That cat was part of the family,” Geller pointed out. “Families experience rough times together, and the cat would surely prefer to give up some attention temporarily rather than be separated from her family permanently. You don’t split up a family simply because times are hard!”

By then, Geller says, the woman was crying. She asked Geller for reassurance that it would really be okay to keep her cat, proving to Geller that the woman didn’t really want to give up her cat but just wanted to do the right thing. Geller reassured the woman and promised her support. “In the end,” Geller said, “the woman kept her cat.”

Agnes Smith believes that one solution to the challenges of humane education is to reach children when they’re young enough to be positively influenced by a program and to even become animal  ambassadors.

“It’s best to give before you’re received,” said Stacey LeBaron. “I find if you’re going to work in a community that you don’t personally live in it’s not a good idea to go in and ‘preach’ your way in.” She recommended that animal welfare groups go into a community and offer free vaccinations, microchipping, and spay/neuter and to provide a resource list about how people can help. “It’s best to first bring in resources and offer solutions to challenging situations, and through “doing” you’ll create new humane relationships.”

LeBaron lives by her own advice. She worked for twenty years with Community Cats in Massachusetts, before she became president of the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society, leading the MRFRS Mentoring program, or hosting the Community Cats Podcast. For the podcast LeBaron records interviews with leaders in the animal welfare field. Her hope is that those stories will “inspire others to take action and to believe that they can succeed even with challenges. We also aim to provide valuable information that folks can use in their programs and communities.”

In the end, education can also change the educator. “By doing the Community Cats Podcast,” said LeBaron, “I’ve become so much more sympathetic to the very different challenges that people face in their communities.” Before starting the podcast two years ago, LeBaron believed that animal homelessness could be eliminated if only animal welfare groups offered services at either no cost or low cost all across the country. Through the podcast, she discovered that legislation, along with lack of funding and volunteers, could hinder the development of a humane community cat program, along with other challenges such as lack of funding and volunteers. “Having legislation hinder progress in a community really made me understand the need for some other supportive tools in our tool-kit.”

Rachel Geller pointed to many ways that she’s been changed through her experiences as a humane educator. One, she says, is that’s become much more aware of her use of language. “Expressions such as ‘kill two birds with one stone’ or ‘don’t let the cat out of the bag’ normalize violence towards animals, so I avoid using those types of expressions, and gently point them out to others when I hear them.”

In addition, Geller has taken a more of an active role in her community by identifying and reporting animal abuse. “I’ve met with my state representatives and state senators to advocate for laws that provide better protections for animals. I feel strongly that we are their stewards.”

On the horizon are more stewards. Stacey LeBaron, who has recorded over 250 Community Cats podcasts, pointed to “incredible and inspiring work happening in the field. I think we’re going to see some very exciting new individual leaders in the field … Jackson Galaxy leads the group … Then there’s the Cat Man of West Oakland and Sterling Davis. There are quite a few woman leaders in the field too, with Hannah Shaw being the most notable.”

All the organizations featured here depend on volunteers, which can include humane education outreach. Please help them by spreading the word about their services and by donating your time and money to their cause. Specifically, you can help Lincoln Animal Ambassadors by writing for LAA Pet Talk and by giving generously on Give to Lincoln Day this May 31st.

Kindness Matters

I recently received the following message from an animal rescue volunteer: “Sadly, I have been struggling a lot in the animal rescue field. Sure, I’ll continue to donate and adopt from shelters or rescues, but I’ve just been burned financially and emotionally too many times by those in rescue. Too many folks in rescue are so blinded with helping save as many as possible that everything else becomes lost in the fray. As a pet foster parent, I always end up feeling forgotten and abandoned. After this current foster is adopted, I’m done.” As yet another volunteer wearied of the animal welfare field I began to think about those who are just starting out. The advice I’d offer them can be summarized in two words: Be kind.

Dear New Volunteer:

Welcome to the wonderful world of animal welfare! For many volunteers including myself, it’s a field where one forges multiple friendships and discovers one’s passion in life. Unfortunately, it’s also a field where one can sometimes drown in sorrow and drama. As you delve deeper into the animal welfare field, I encourage you to find balance by embracing kindness.

Be kind to fellow volunteers

The motto for the Best Friends Animal Society is “together we can save them all,” with emphasis on together. As animal welfare volunteers, we all have one motivation for giving our time, energy, and money to the cause—a love of animals. For that reason, working together should be easy to do. Unfortunately, we don’t always agree on the best way to help animals. Moreover, unity can be hard to practice when caught up in the emotional angst of a moment. One day a conversation in a Trap-Neuter-Release Facebook group turned mean. The discussion started when the sole caretaker of a feral cat colony vented about the physical, emotional, and financial toll her responsibilities were taking on her. Initially, others chimed in to commiserate. Next she started criticizing those volunteers who were “not in the trenches,” such as marketers, photographers, writers, etc. A few caretakers disagreed, only to find themselves a target of criticism. The discussion then disintegrated to the point that even those “in the trenches” were being criticized if they were part of a larger group instead of a one-person operation. As I read all of this, I felt disheartened. After all, when people who share a common passion can’t support each other, is it any wonder that so many animal welfare volunteers split off to start their own groups or quit the field?

In contrast, what follows is an example of a situation in which kindness and cooperation ruled. My husband and I were driving through Ohio, a two-day drive from where we live, on our way home from a vacation. At the hotel where we stopped overnight, I saw some stray cats, including one that was injured. I had no idea what to do other than to post a plea for help in at a Trap-Neuter-Release Facebook group after we got home. To my relief, no one judged me for not intervening myself, but instead suggested people I could contact. One wonderful woman, who has since become a friend, took up the call. She talked to the hotel manager and to residents about the cats. In cooperation with a spay-neuter clinic, she proceeded to trap the cats and have them spayed/neutered, vaccinated, and treated for injuries. She also enlisted the support of locals in providing continual care of the cats. At any point, this situation could have turned sour. My friend could have demanded cooperation from the hotel manager, which might have resulted in the cats being taken to the shelter, where no doubt they would have been euthanized. My friend could’ve blasted the residents or not taking better care of the cats, which might have turned them against the cause, leaving the cats without any caretakers. Instead, the situation had a happy outcome. The hotel continues to this day to manage the feral cat colony. In addition, four cats have been adopted.

Be kind to pet owners

The longer you volunteer in the animal welfare field, the more often you’ll hear the sentiment: “I love animals; I hate people.” If you scroll through enough media stories, there’s certainly justification for this negativity. Animals across our country are suffering and/or dying due to neglect, abandonment, hoarding, and even abuse. The longer you stay in the field, the greater the likelihood that you’ll personally encounter these situations. However, while sometimes the right response will be to advocate for legislation, report a crime, or confront a neighbor, the reality is that many pet owners act out of ignorance, lack of resources, or a feeling of being overwhelmed. In these cases, while it might prove hard to keep your emotions in check over questionable decisions, kindness to your fellow pet owner is the best action.

I follow pet forums where members can ask pet advice and even attempt to re home a pet, and sometimes the discussions get heated. A recent situation involved that of a pet owner with two senior dogs that had grown up together, but the one had turned aggressive in its senior years, and so the owner raised the possibility of finding another home for the aggressive dog. Some commenters offered empathy and/or practical solutions, while others accused the pet owner of being callous and even expressed the desire for the person to suffer that same fate as the aggressive dog, that of being discarded in his old age. While this particular pet owner remains active in the group, there have times when instead such bullying has caused a member to leave. While blasting a pet owner for what we view as wrong might feel good at the time, I question the long-term outcome. The pet owner will in the future feel reluctant to ask for help. In addition, in the absence of constructive advice, the animal in need will undoubtedly end up in a shelter where euthanasia is a real possibility.

In contrast, what follows is an example of a situation in which kindness and education ruled. Years before I met her, a dear friend of mine setup a non-profit, Lakes Animal Friendship Society, which is dedicated to improving the lives of companion animals in northern British Columbia. Through her volunteer work as a humane educator, my friend teaches residents about animal care while also providing practical solutions to community problems. Her non-profit started the Doghouse Project, which builds shelters for dogs and cats in need. The organization shares its designs online, making its practical solution available worldwide, so that “even more dogs and cats can have a place to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter”. By offering pet owners practical assistance, her organization does far more to help animals than if she had chosen instead to berate pet owners who were not providing adequate shelter for their outdoor pets.

Be kind to those who don’t own pets

When you volunteer in animal welfare, you are a representative of the position that animals should be treated humanely. Each time that we interact with other people, especially those who don’t own pets, we have the opportunity to shape their opinion about animals and the humane treatment of animals. For example, this past month my youngest cat and I started visiting a senior retirement community. As we entered and exited the facility, we drew attention; people were surprised to see a cat in a stroller. The next two things to catch people’s attention were Rainy’s harness and leash. People are always surprised to learn that cats can be trained to accept a leash. People then asked about the reason for Rainy’s visit, which gave me the opportunity to tell them about therapy cats. This has led to people wanting to see Rainy up close and even pet her. These encounters might not convince anyone to go out and adopt a cat, but you never know. It’s better to be kind and sway people’s opinion of cats towards the positive rather than towards the negative. I grew up having no interest in cats due to hearing that they were independent and moody. It was because I found a special cat that my opinion of cats changed for the better. Now, with cat therapy, Rainy and I have the opportunity to shape other people’s opinions.

Be kind to yourself

Compassion fatigue is real. This became all too apparent to me when I began to read of suicides in the field. Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and internationally recognized pioneer in the field of animal behavior applied to pet training, took her life in 2014. Two years later, a veterinary doctor and director of an animal shelter in Taiwan made the news when she killed herself due to being distraught about her shelter’s euthanasia rate. She was only thirty-one. On the heels of these incidents, a recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine revealed that animal rescue workers have a workplace suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers. While these statistics are of paid workers rather than volunteers, sooner or later everyone in the field risks compassion fatigue unless we learn to be kind to ourselves.

Those who are involved in animal welfare and especially animal rescue are constantly bombarded with pleas for help and stories of abuse. When so many lives are at stake daily, cynicism naturally develops about the dedication of your fellow volunteers, the integrity of pet owners, and even your ability to make a difference. What about those who work with animals but aren’t involved in rescue? One dog trainer shared her experience online of how she initially expected “happy skies” because she was only working with responsible pet owners who loved their pets. Except then this trainer adopted a difficult dog, which led her to work with clients who also had difficult dogs, and this eventually took an emotional toll on her.

If you push yourself to the breaking point and end up leaving animal welfare altogether, that wouldn’t be good for anyone. Instead, by taking things more slowly and taking breaks, you’ll accomplish more in the long run because you’ll be able to stay in animal welfare longer. How exactly should you avoid burning out? The first truth you must accept is that you can NOT save them all. One day all of us together might turn the tide, but for now just focus on saving one life. If you do nothing else, this single act will change the life of that one animal and its owner; and herein you’ve made a difference. And on those days when tragedies happen, seek out inspirational stories such as those that shine a spotlight on the human-animal bond. You must also take concrete steps to ensure your life doesn’t revolve around animal welfare 24/7. Make time for family and friends, including your own pets. Focus on the parts of your life that you can control, such as a healthy diet and exercise routine. Ensure each day contains fun moments, whether it’s an hour of arcade games, a bubble bath, or a nap.

Animal welfare is a wonderful path to take! I wish you many blessed years on this journey upon which you’re about to embark. When I first started visiting a no-kill shelter to socialize dogs, I had no idea how many twists and turns my life would take. Nor how failures and successes I’d have, as I started to network with rescues. As you delve deeper into the field, you’ll probably find it hard to believe that one could never need a break. I fell into that trap myself, with the result that last year I found myself no longer getting any pleasure from the field. I finally decided to take last month off from helping animals. During that month, I decided which commitments to keep, and took time to enjoy life.

On an animal welfare podcast that I recently listened to, a guest speaker stated: “People are the problem; they are also the solution.” As you too pursue the path of animal welfare, please remember: Kindness matters, to fellow volunteers who care, to other pet owners, to non-pet owners, and to yourself.