A Pet Foster for Capital Humane Society

Always glad to talk about fostering.

A long-time owner of pets and donor to the Capital Humane Society, Colleen Seymour is a retired teacher who got interested in fostering homeless animals because of a colleague. She has fostered over 100 cats and kittens since she started in July  2017. Her most recent fostering involved a mother cat and two kittens.

ALLISON: What are the highs of being a pet foster?

COLLEEN: The highs of being a foster is socializing the cats and kittens so that they will be adopted into their furever home.

ALLISON: What are the lows of being a pet foster?

COLLEEN: Cleaning the cat box, cleaning up messes, medication, expense ( the humane society will give you cat food, etc, but I usually donate it).

ALLISON: Share some memorable moments.

COLLEEN: Several memorable moments come to mind. One, a thunderstorm blew open a window and flooded the room some kittens were in. Two, a kitten disappeared and it took half an hour to find out that he’d climbed into a freezer. Three, a scared mama who escaped into an uncovered vent in the ceiling until she finally returned to feed her kittens. Fourth, kittens tried to nurse off my male ragdoll cat. Last, my golden retriever making sure she could find some foster kittens. I think she actually counted them!

ALLISON: Do you stay in contact with any of the adopters? If so, what are some memorable follow-ups? If not, why?

COLLEEN: Some of my kittens have been adopted by my sister-in-law, my sister, or by friends. All of those cats are in good homes and doing fine.


ALLISON: What have you learned about pet care from fostering homeless animals?

COLLEEN: The most important thing I have learned from fostering is that it makes a difference. Foster pets are more loving and have a better chance of being a forever pet. They’re more likely to be adopted when people come in and hold them because they’ll purr or let you hold and pet them. Two of my fosters that were on 1011 news the other day for at least five minutes let the host of the show hold them. I’ve also learned that patience with the most nervous cats and kittens and kindness can gain trust. Oh, and I’ve learned how to spot illnesses, give medication, and administer an IV.

ALLISON: What are some tips for other fosters?

COLLEEN: One tip would be: make sure you have a suitable “kitty room”. No carpet!

ALLISON: What are other ways ones can help homeless animals?

COLLEEN: Do not ignore strays. A stray can also be taken to a vet for a microchip check. Stray cats can be trapped them and brought to the Capital Humane Society to be spayed or neutered.

Whenever possible, educate about overpopulation. It is NOT okay to let that dog or cat have a litter so your children can experience it. People also need to understand that dogs need a lot of attention. They need to pick a breed that suits their life style. Dogs are social animals and need to be with people. Cats also develop bonds with people.

ALLISON: Why should others foster?

COLLEEN: These cats and kittens are in a very stressful environment at a shelter. When you foster you give them a chance to become healthy and loving, so that they’ll be adopted.

For anyone who is interested in fostering through Capital Humane Society, volunteers are needed to provide foster care for a variety of reasons including:

  • A mother cat or dog that needs a quiet place to nurse her litter
  • Kittens that need to gain weight before they can be spayed or neutered
  • A shy dog or cat in need of socialization
  • Dogs or cats that need a course of medication for respiratory illness
  • Dogs or cats recovering from a surgical procedure
  • Cats or dogs available for adoption but do better outside of the shelter environment

In 2015, over 85 different foster parents for the Capital Humane Society helped prepare 380+ homeless animals for adoption. The Capital Humane Society is always looking for new foster parents to better help the animals in its care. Fostering may last anywhere from two weeks to several months, depending on the pet’s needs. As part of the program, CHS provides fosters with all needed supplies including food, litter, and medications. For more information, check out this page: CHS foster care.

Adventures in Fostering: Love Letter to Onyx

Dear Onyx,

Thank you for coming into our lives. You’ve brought us many happy moments. We love how affectionate and playful you are. Now that you’re healthy, you’re also starting to explore and show your unique quirks, which is equally fun to see.

From the moment we first held you at the Capital Humane Society, we knew that you had lots of love to give. Yes, you might have clung to us out of fear, but you also kissed me with your tiny tongue. When we finally got to bring you home, it didn’t take long before you wanted to touch our hair, our fingers, our toes. You’ve always wanted physical contact and that makes you very endearing to us. Now that you know us, you’ll run up to us or flop on the floor to ask for tummy rubs. You’ve even climbed on my keyboard and pushed the pages of a book I’m reading to get me to focus on you. When we pick you up, you no longer cling to us out of fear, but now instead you snuggle on our laps, our tummies, our chests. And there you purr up a storm of content. You’re super cute when you stretch out your paws to touch us. You are a love.

How impressive is it that even when you were sick, you proved yourself an escape artist? Just three days after we brought you home, you wriggled out of the side of your crate when you heard me fixing breakfast. Within a week, although you had started gaining weight you still weren’t having solid stools, but you were determined to climb onto the guest room bed. I underestimated how fast you’d figure that out. One minute you were on the floor and I was arranging blankets in your crate, the next minute you were on the bed and I was watching to see how you did it. I finally figured out that you were scrambling up the sheets. One of my favorite things is when you play hide-and-seek. You wrap yourself around a bed post, peek your head out to catch my attention, and then duck it back when you see me. And then there’s your latest trick, that of trying to run away when you don’t want to get caught, especially at bedtime.

In that first week after we brought you home, you showed so little interest in food and toys that more than once we thought we were going to lose you. We even took you to our vet. I raised the possibility of “failure to thrive”. Our vet immediately dismissed the idea. No, you weren’t well. But you also had spunk. And you showed it during our visit. You kept wanting to jump off the exam table. We finally put you on the floor, where you promptly tried to eat dirt off the floor. You wouldn’t eat kitten food, but you’d eat dirt! That’s some weird logic. But we didn’t care, because then you started to play with some dog leashes that were hanging from a hook. We had never seen you play before. It didn’t take long before you were playing with all kinds of things. Some of them we’d rather you wouldn’t, such as my pencils and papers. Others we’re more than happy to let you have, such as soft balls, plush mice, and wand toys.

Time passes so quickly. In just another couple of weeks, we’ll be looking for an adopter for you. We’ll be happy-sad to let you go. The moments we’ve shared with you have been priceless. But you’re also going to fill your adopters’ lives with happy moments. Little Bat Girl, we wish you the best life.

Love, your pet foster parents.

Adventures in Fostering, Part Two

Her weight had started to climb, but something still seemed amiss. Whenever Andy or I entered the guest room, the little black kitten was lying down? Shouldn’t a kitten do more than lie down? Shouldn’t she be playing? One evening, Andy tossed a fluffy yellow ball her way. Onyx sat upright but otherwise didn’t move, not even when Andy and I tried to play ‘keep away’ with her. Another evening, I dangled a pink plush mouse near her. Again, despite her green eyes sparking with curiosity, Onyx made no attempt to play. Even though she snuggled into us and purred whenever we picked her up, worry tugged at me. Andy was still having to syringe feed her, which didn’t seem normal for a growing kitten. Then there were the regular soft stools in her litter box. I tried to push the phrase “failure to thrive” out my head, but it got harder with each passing day to maintain hope.

Failure to thrive in kittens can occur from birth to nine weeks of age. Affected kittens often decline quickly and die. Immediate detection and treatment are key to survival. The problem is that fading kitten syndrome, like its name implies, is a condition and not a disease. There are many causes. Worse, many of those underlying causes are difficult to prevent. It can be the fault of the mother, who might have a difficult birth, inadequate milk production, or even an incompatible blood type with her offspring. The fault can lie with the kitten, who as the runt might have congenital abnormalities, immature lung development, or decreased nursing ability. Infections, toxins, and other environmental causes such as temperatures that are too high or low can be at fault. Finally, nutrition can be at fault, if the mother h didn’t eat enough while pregnant or nursing or the kitten received inadequate milk replacement formula. Especially when a kitten is discovered homeless, many of these causes can already have taken a toll, in which case recovery will be an uphill and sometimes impossible battle.

scheduled a vet appointment for Onyx, but also collected a stool sample to bring to the Capital Humane Society for which we were fostering Onyx. At the vet, Onyx meowed plaintively when touched, showing that she wasn’t feeling well. But she also insisted on exploring the exam table, showing that she still had some fight left in her. The vet left to run some tests and we let Onyx roam the floor. She discovered some hanging leashes and began to play with them. Andy and I exchanged glances, surprised and delighted with Onyx’s energy level. Moments like these are what calmed my worry that Onyx had fading kitten syndrome. The vet echoed feeling that Onyx had too much spunk to die. The call we received later that day from CHS gave us even further reason to hope. Onyx was diagnosed with Giardia. That would certainly explain her poor appetite, runny stools, and lethargy. The good news was that, although Giardia was contagious and potentially life-threatening, it was treatable.

Giardia is a common intestinal parasite in people and animals. It’s excreted in the feces of an infected cat, then picked up when ingested by other cats sharing litter boxes. Giardia can also be found on contaminated surfaces, in soil, or in food or water that has been contaminated with feces from infected creatures. The most common symptom is diarrhea. Other symptoms are weight loss, poor grooming, and lethargy. Unfortunately, these symptoms can also be indicative of many other medical conditions, and so Giardia isn’t always readily recognized by its symptoms alone. The incidence is relatively low in North America, but can spread quickly wherever several cats share space, such as in shelters and multi-cat households. For treatment, Onyx received a week’s worth of metronidazole. We already had Onyx confined to the guest room, so we didn’t need to quarantine her, and had already been thoroughly washing our hands well after each contact. I consulted Lancaster County (Nebraska) Ask-A-Vet and learned that I should bathe Onyx and then clean her after every bowel movement. In addition, I followed the advice to change clothes after cleaning her litter box.

The crate was a mess. Diarrhea soaked the litter box and the blankets. There was even diarrhea splattered on the floor around the crate. This was the worst incident, but the next day the tide turned. Onyx had a solid stool. She began eating both her wet and dry food. Syringe-feeding had suddenly become a thing of the past. One night she turned escape artist and found her way out of her crate. Having realized that adventure can be fun, Onyx started to explore the guest room with earnest. She soon discovered the delights of closets, curtains, corners…. and of playing hide-and-seek with her guardians.

At the time of this article, Onyx continues to thrive. In the three weeks that we’ve had her, she’s gone from 1.2 pounds to over 2.5 pounds. Her litter box, scratching post, and toys get put to full use. She’s showing even more curiosity, wanting to play with Andy’s beard and my glasses. She’s also learned to jump, and a few times she’s managed to climb into the guest bed. Friends of ours have nicknamed her Black Beauty and Blackjack, as her personality develops. More adventures lie ahead for Onyx, when we introduce her to our other pets. In addition, soon she will be spayed, and then we can begin our search for an adopter. Thank you Capital Humane Society and Joining Forces Saving Lives for letting us foster this beautiful little girl.

Interview with Charleen Engberg, Capital Humane Society

What is known today as the Capital Humane Society began in 1902 as the Lancaster County Humane Society. The first shelter was located in a shed near the West ‘O’ Street viaduct. The Society’s mission focused on the prevention of cruelty to children and horses.

Around 1907, the services expanded to include a variety of animals. Other expansions have included: in spring of 2004, renovation was completed on the new Spay/Neuter Vet clinic at the shelter, allowing the Capital Humane Society to spay and neuter all dogs and cats going into the adoption program; and in 2013, the Pieloch Pet Adoption Center opened it’s doors at 6500 S. 70th Street to handle adoptions and humane education. The Capital Humane Society’s original location on Park Boulevard now functions as an Admissions & Assessment Center.

The Capital Humane Society has the goals of serving the community by offering shelter to homeless animals, acting as an advocate for animal welfare, and educating the public about responsible pet care. A huge thanks to Charleen Engberg, Volunteer and Education Director, for taking time for an interview. This interview is part of LAA Pet Talk’s Animal Welfare Takes A Village series.

ALLISON: How did you become a Volunteer and Education Director? Why?

CHARLEEN: I have been involved with animal welfare as a volunteer or employee for more than 25 years. I started as a volunteer at Capital Humane Society in the 1990s. I also worked in the office and then transitioned into the Director of Volunteer and Education Director position. When my family moved out of the state, I wanted to stay involved, so made it a priority to find a job or volunteer at an animal welfare organization in the various other communities where we lived. I was very fortunate to be hired by Capital Humane Society again about 5 years ago when we moved back to Lincoln.

The work is challenging and very rewarding. I am inspired by the many caring people I meet who also work hard and put their love of animals into meaningful action. There has been a lot of progress in the field of animal welfare yet there is still much work to be done. I am very grateful to have a job that has a positive impact for animals in our community.

Photo by Nastasia Lai
Photo by Nastasia Lai

ALLISON: What are the most common reasons an animal is relinquished to the Capital Humane Society?

CHARLEEN: The majority of pets arrive at Capital Humane Society as lost animals brought in by Animal Control, other law enforcement and Good Samaritans. Many lost dogs are reclaimed by their owners. However, most lost cats are not reclaimed. In 2016, the most common reasons that owners told us they needed to surrender their pet is that they had too many animals already, they were moving or they did not have time.

ALLISON: Why did the foster care program get started and what is its success rate?

CHARLEEN: The foster program got started so we could help more animals. In 2016, more than 90 foster volunteers provided care for 515 animals in need. These often are kittens that are too young to be spayed or neutered, and pets that need to recover from surgery or illness. Capital Humane Society provides the food, medicine, and supplies the volunteers need. The volunteers provide a safe environment and care until the pet is ready to be returned and placed in adoption.

ALLISON: What kind of educational support is provided to fosters/adopters? What are common questions do you get from fosters/adopters?

CHARLEEN: Our animal behaviorist is Shelby Backhus. I asked her about these questions. She said we offer training handouts to adopters and they are also on our website, so people can get a better understanding of certain behaviors and ways to work through them.

She said the most common question she gets from owners is something like, ‘My pet is doing this naughty behavior. How do I stop it?” It may have to do with house-training, aggression, or the pet may just need some basic obedience training. There are behaviors that are misunderstood and people may take the wrong approach when working to solve them. For example, what is thought to be a house-training problem may actually be fear or excitement urination. Shelby can provide direction and the handouts on our website are very thorough and useful.

Our foster coordinator does a home visit for foster care volunteers to explain the program. She provides support and information as needed based on the individual animal. Each case is so unique. Volunteers will be trained on how to give medication, for example. As questions come up, the foster coordinator works to find and share answers.

ALLISON: What is the Capital Humane Society’s live release rate?

CHARLEEN: Capital Humane Society is an open admissions facility. We do not refuse pets or put them on waiting lists. The animals that arrive at our door need shelter, food, and care. If an animal is not claimed by their owner, we will evaluate the pet for our adoption program. Each pet is evaluated as an individual and decisions are based primarily on temperament and health. Medical and behavioral evaluations are done to assess their needs. We do not have breed or age restrictions. There is no time limit once an animal is placed in the adoption program. We can place animals in our volunteer foster homes when space is an issue and if we anticipate an issue, we may run adoption specials to increase adoptions. We also work with and place animals with rescue and other animal welfare organizations. While a question about live release rates can seem straightforward, sometimes responses vary based on if an organization uses terms such as treatable, adoptable, etc. Based on raw data alone, and not using definitions that might be unclear or misinterpreted, our current live release rate is 90% for dogs and 67% for cats.

ALLISON: How is the environment enriched for cats that are brought to the Capital Humane Society?

CHARLEEN: Along with food, water, and a litter box, the cats are provided with bedding and a shoe box (to give them comfort and a place to hide). Additionally, they are given an enrichment toy each day which includes items such as a Kitty Kong. We also have aromatherapy and different scents, such as vanilla or jasmine, are sprayed each day. Products to calm cats such as Feliway may also be sprayed or used in a diffuser.

The colonies at the adoption center have more space and items such as cat trees and towers are placed in them to provide the cats with extra enrichment. Our volunteers play a very important role in giving the cats a good quality of life. We are fortunate to be able to schedule individuals to ensure the cats get plenty of attention each day.

ALLISON: What kind of programs do you have in place/plan to put in place for cats?

CHARLEEN: Current programs to benefit cats include the Working Cat Program, Foster Program, Low Cost Feline Spay/Neuter Program, Humane Education Program and the Adoption Program. In 2016, 446 felines benefited from a stay with a foster family and more than 1,650 cats were adopted from Capital Humane Society.

In 2016, the majority of cats that arrived at our organization were not altered. Nearly 1,400 were spayed or neutered at Capital Humane Society before they were placed in the adoption program. The Low-Cost Feline Spay/Neuter Program is for cats owned by people who fall under federal poverty guidelines. The program provides low-income families the opportunity to have their cats sterilized so their pets are not adding to the overpopulation problem. Capital Humane Society has also provided TNR assistance to farm owners in Lancaster County with cats on their property.

Our Humane Education program also benefits cats. Each year, we provide tours and presentations to hundreds of children of all ages. Topics discussed include responsible pet care and the role of the humane society. We utilize educational books such as “The True or False Book of Cats.” By teaching them facts about cats, they can be more informed and respectful caretakers of their own pets.

ALLISON: Do you provide behavioral support for cats? Why or why not?

CHARLEEN: Shelby noted that adopters and citizens who are having concerns with their cat can call our behavior department. She’ll talk through the issue and provide useful resources that can help resolve a number of common concerns, such as litter box problems.

ALLISON: Do you provide training for cats? Why or why not?

CHARLEEN: Shelby explained that due to limited resources, we do not currently offer training classes for cats. However, the handouts on our website provide information on topics such as leash training your cat. Adoption counselors regularly refer adopters to this information, which is presented in a user-friendly way.

ALLISON: Why did the barn program get started and what is its success rate?

CHARLEEN: The Working Cat program started in April 2016 and to date 25 cats have been placed. It is an alternate placement program for cats unsuitable for the traditional adoption program due to behavior issues or temperament. These cats still need proper care and there is a process for acclimating them to a new home. Details and an application can be found on our website at: Working Cat Program

ALLISON: Not everyone can commit to regular hours or has the ability to foster. In light of this, what are some of the unique ways that people have helped?

CHARLEEN: We understand not everyone can make the commitment necessary to volunteer on a regular basis or help with foster care. Other ways that individuals can assist is by making items for the animals in our adoption program, such as toys or beds. We have instructions on our website. Having fundraisers to support our programs is also appreciated. For example, a local business recently let us know we were chosen for their Jeans Day event. Their employees get to wear jeans in exchange for a donation to Capital Humane Society. As a non-profit agency, we rely on a generous community to support our programs and provide resources and care for thousands of pet in need each year. Donations are always needed and are an important way that people help.

ALLISON: What are the best ways people can help the homeless pet population?

CHARLEEN: We strive to educate people of all ages that the solution to pet overpopulation is spaying and neutering. This starts with people having their own pets spayed and neutered. We offer a low cost spay/neuter program for low-income cat owners to provide them with an opportunity to have their cat sterilized so they are not reproducing and adding to the feline overpopulation problem. The program started in March 2016 and so far 205 cats and kittens have been spayed/neutered.

And, of course, another way people can help is by choosing to adopt a homeless animal when they are ready to provide a loving, life-long home to a pet.

The Perfect Ambassador of “Adopt Don’t Shop”

I had been volunteering at the local humane society for a couple years. As much as I wanted a dog, I knew I couldn’t have one in the living situation I was in, and I had stayed away from the internal struggle of trying to find a way to take one home with me. March 4, 2014, I broke my streak.

–Jenna Rifer, Letter to My Rescue Dog

jenna_lucyyawnThis past year, I interviewed Jenna Rifer about her work at The Capital Humane Society as a part of a series about animal welfare volunteers. At the time she shared with me a second story, that of an unexpected surprise from her two years of assisting the veterinarian staff there. Despite knowing better, Jenna fell in love with a seven-year-old Cocker Spaniel, Lucy. I knew that eventually I wanted to share Jenna and Lucy’s story at LAA Pet Talk. And now here it is, the first of three about how pets help their owners through even the worst circumstances.

Jenna had been walking through rows and rows of kennels when the sight of the Cocker Spaniel’s “stubby legs, long ears, and crazy curly doggy mullet” made her melt. As she began talking to the seven-year-old dog, Lucy jumped up against the door of the kennel and whined to be let out. Walking away from Lucy was tough, especially as Lucy’s cries grew even louder with each departing step, but Jenna wasn’t yet ready to adopt.

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 Rifer

As the days passed, Jenna found she couldn’t put Lucy out of her mind. And, deep in Jenna’s heart, something felt right about the seven-year-old Cocker Spaniel. After a lot of thinking and planning, Jenna called up the Capital Humane Society. Although Lucy wasn’t yet available for adoption, due to being treated for an eye ulcer, Jenna was granted permission to take her home because of her relationship with the staff.

lucy_toyDuring their first few days together, Lucy kept watch over Jenna and followed her around the house. As Lucy’s trust in Jenna grew, she became less interested in what was happening around her and more interested in what Jenna was doing. Lucy began to express excitement when Jenna would wake up in the morning and show great delight when Jenna would return from a long day of school and work. Over time, nothing seemed to make Lucy more content than knowing Jenna was happy. When Jenna jumped with joy upon learning she had been accepted into veterinary school, Lucy barked and ran about with excitement.

The two continue to share an emotional bond. “Lucy is extremely responsive to me. Sometimes when I talk to her, she barks or howls back. I lay on the floor and play with her and she mimics some of my movements with her paws.” Similarly, nothing seems to make Lucy more concerned than knowing something is wrong with Jenna. If Jenna’s sick, Lucy pays even closer attention to her and stays close.

In spite of Jenna’s close relationship with Lucy, there have been challenges. Although Lucy was a middle-aged dog, she had to re-taught how to potty outside. Early on too, she had recurring trouble with ear infections and needed dental work. But those were nothing compared to the news delivered to Jenna at the first vet visit: Six tumors were found in Lucy’s mammary glands; three of her glands would need to be removed.

The surgery would be expensive, and Jenna was just a poor college student. Even so, Jenna viewed the money would be small price to pay for Lucy’s companionship. She made the decision to save up, preferring to be in debt that lose her beloved dog. After surgery, more care lay ahead. Jenna faithfully cleaned and re-bandaged Lucy’s incision regularly, and administered medications throughout each day.

There were times when Jenna wasn’t sure how the two would survive the tough times. Jenna’s strenuous curriculum and heavy work hours, the numerous apartment moves, and Lucy’s separation anxiety all took their toll. Jenna even had to patch a wall that Lucy destroyed in one of her separation anxiety attacks. She’s since learned how “to keep her calm when I have to be away”.

QUOTE: You had been there a couple of months by the time I saw you. The staff told me that you were picked up as a stray and were never claimed. You were 7 years old, friendly with other pets, knew “Sit” and “Stay” … How could anyone give you up? How could anyone not come looking for you?

–Jenna Rifer, Letter to My Rescue Dog

jenna_lucymasksBut all of the hurdles the two had to overcome pale in comparison to the endless memorable moments that the two have shared. For example, there was the moment when one of her roommates joked that he was going to teach Lucy to dance. Treat in his hand, he told her just one time, ‘Dance!’ Their jaws dropped as Lucy jumped around in a full circle. She already knew! Or there is the ritual that happens after Jenna comes home and takes Lucy outside. “When we get back in, she races to her doggy bed, sits down and watches me walk into the room. She looks at me and give me a cute little ‘I missed you’ howl.” Through her anecdotes, it’s obvious how enamored Jenna is with Lucy.

Jenna describes Lucy as “my best friend, my baby, and my support system.” She feels she couldn’t ask for a better-behaved dog. In addition, Lucy reminds Jenna not to take life too seriously and that there’s always something to be happy about. She brings Jenna toys so that they can play and makes Jenna laugh with her “random sassy howls when the room is too quiet”. By getting her through dark moments, Lucy’s shown Jenna that she’s always loved and that she can be herself.

You have such a pure and sweet soul. Everywhere we go people fall in love with you. When I’m happy, you’re happy … You’re the perfect ambassador of, “don’t shop, adopt!”–Jenna Rifer

10 Lessons I Learned About Volunteering

I don’t remember a time when I haven’t been involved in volunteer work. Yet in 2008, after I got married and moved to Lincoln to be with my husband, I found myself struggling to figure out how to fit into the volunteer world. This struggle led me on journey of self-discovery as a volunteer.

huskercats_logoWhen I started to research local non-profit organizations, I hit unexpected roadblocks. Some groups, because of the expertise needed for their volunteer roles, demanded a lot of training hours. Being just three years out of graduate school, and in a job where my contract renewal depended on X amount of hours of employee development training, I wasn’t ready to put myself back into a classroom environment. There were groups I could start with almost immediately, but they still required a year-long commitment of a fixed number of hours per week. Being relatively new to my teaching profession, I didn’t feel capable of committing to a second rigorous schedule. Finally, there were groups that didn’t require a lot of training or a big time commitment, yet presented the biggest roadblock of all: they wanted me to talk to strangers. Being an introvert, I felt this was a deal breaker. And so for the next few years I had no outlet for my desire to serve my community until I discovered my niche with Husker Cats and Lincoln Animal Ambassadors.


While I love working with these two groups, this article isn’t about them. Rather, it’s about what others have taught me about being a volunteer. You see, several months ago, I decided to try and make the volunteering process easier for others who might like me end up wondering if they actually have anything besides money to offer. And so I talked to animal welfare volunteers about how they got started, what individual skills they brought to the table, and their advice for aspiring volunteers. Over the past six months, LAA Pet Talk has run numerous profiles of volunteers. While we’ll continue to run ones in the future, this article collects what I’ve learned into one place.

  1. Volunteers are essential.

Despite the time it might take to find an organization where you best fit, you shouldn’t give up. As various members of LAA told me, their programs depend on volunteers to survive. Donna Kavanaugh stressed that LAA wouldn’t be able to grow without volunteers. “The more volunteers we have, the more we can do.  There’s never a shortage of things to do.” And, as Mary Douglas pointed out, “We’re all in this together.” Or, in other words, it takes a village to accomplish the goals of volunteer groups.

  1. Start with a need.

When I began to volunteer with Husker Cats, I felt that writing educational articles would be the best way to help. When that didn’t pan out, I considered quitting the group. Yet I felt intrigued enough by feral cat colonies that I took a stab at being a caretaker. Because I was open to filling that need, I discovered the great joy of having cats show up at the feeders because of their dependence on me for food and water. I also had the great privilege of opening up our home to a feral cat and seeing her learn to adapt to indoor life and to the companionship of people.

One of the first volunteers I interviewed, Mindy Peck of The Cat House, recommended for prospective volunteers to just get started. “There is always some chore that needs to get completed.” And one of the last volunteers I interviewed, Ron Stow of LAA, responded tongue-in-cheek to my questions with the comment: “What qualifies me for throwing 50-pound bags of food around?  Well, I went to the gym in my younger days.  I’ve been an avionics mechanic in the Air Force and a mechanic at home.  I’m really just trying to fill in where there seemed to be a need.” Both Mindy and Ron are happy with the niches they’ve filled. As for me, I don’t even want to imagine what my life would’ve been like if I’d refused to simply “start with a need”.

  1. Find your passion.

The beauty about starting with a need is that you might end up igniting a new passion or rekindling an old passion. Through Husker Cats, I found a love for feral cats, which in turn reinforced my love of all cats. Kim Ostermann of Second Chance Pups emphasized, “Get involved. Dig deep and find out what inspires you. What makes you motivated to volunteer? You have to do it without expecting anything back. You have to be motivated enough to do this even though you’re not getting any recognition.” Husker Cats is relatively quiet about what it does, but boasts many dedicated cat lovers.

  1. There’s room to use your strength.

In talking with me about the ways that Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue can use volunteers, Holly Harpster said: “We do have volunteers with special skills. One takes care of our website and will be training a couple of us how to also do that part. Others are skilled in photography and take pictures of our dogs and are able to bring out some of their personalities in the photographs. Some have baked home-made dog cookies to give away or sell at events. Others find a super deal on something dog related and ask us if we want to buy the item(s) and resell them at an event.”

Years ago, when I lived in Beatrice, I used to help out at Hearts United for Animals. Andy and I spent the occasional Saturday helping to socialize the dogs and the cats. As we became more comfortable, we also sometimes groomed them and even took dogs out to the play areas. Then one year, Hearts United for Animals decided to develop an educational curriculum, and I was asked to create plays to package with their lessons. As a side note, those plays are what alerted Mary Douglas of LAA to my creative talent, which eventually led to my becoming their blogger.

  1. Develop who you are.

Once you find your place in the volunteer world, the next step is to develop your identity. As with any job, if you find that there’s no room to grow, maybe that’s a sign that you need to keep looking for another group. In contrast, everyone I talked with referred to ways that they’re using the skills they brought to the group and developing new ones. One of the greatest delights for me in being part of LAA is how much freedom they’ve given me with the blog and consequently how much I’ve been able to grow as a writer. In addition, I’ve begun taking on additional duties that include ones I used to think I couldn’t handle as an introvert.

The main thing is, said Dina Barta of Dog DB, to not compare yourself to others. “Let who you are develop. Do not try to be someone else. Do not copy a style that is uncomfortable for you.” Jodie Lee of The Cat House also encouraged, “keep creating and exploring new ways to create.” Their advice makes me think of my interview with Tina Lassley, of Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue, who came up with the fund-raising idea of offering pedicures to dogs. She used a skill she had as a pet owner and re-imagined it as a way to make money. As Holly Harpster of Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue concluded when talking to me about volunteers, “It’s wonderful that people are always thinking about how to help these dogs and you just never know what they will come up with!”

  1. Helping animals is a rewarding experience.

This one is almost a no-brainer, but I can’t ignore it because animal welfare workers expressed this to me time and time again. One young volunteer shared, “Other people should help pets because they are so much fun to be with and they are such good friends.” Tina Lassley of Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue aptly noted, “You play an integral role in the life of a dog. You save a life!”

  1. Volunteering is a way to give back.

Lucy_WindowAnother reason for volunteering is that it’s a way to give back. In the words of Ron Stow, “At some point, someone has helped you out.  Help others!” Jenna Rifer further explained that animals give and teach us a lot and so she wants to give back to them. As for me, although I’ve been helped animals on and off my entire life, my first cat is the reason for now dedicating so many hours to animal welfare. Lucy loved me before I even knew that cats could show affection, and giving back is a way to honor her eight years with me.

  1. Volunteering is about helping a cause.

While your volunteer work will benefit you, it’s essential to remember that you’re helping for the good of the organization and its causes. As Melissa Ripley of Second Chance Pups pointed out, you’re not in it “for the glory or the credit. Don’t let your ego get in the way of the focus of the program! It isn’t about YOU, it’s about your program and about helping!” One of the youngest volunteers I talked with expressed this sentiment so wonderfully when he said, “We’re able to put the Big Dogs Huge Paws name out so people will know what and who we are so that they can hopefully adopt a big dog from us.”

  1. Know your limits.

All of this is well and good, but you also need to set boundaries. Otherwise, you might burn out. Tina Lassley of Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue will sometimes lessen or diversify her commitments. Kim Ostermann of Second Chance Pups suggested, “Focus on the positive. You’re there to make a difference and to make a better quality of life.”

  1. Volunteering will change you. Forever.

Volunteer_HandsAs I said at the start, I don’t remember a time when I haven’t been involved in volunteer work. Every time I’ve volunteered with an organization, I’ve felt that it was (in the words of Jeannie Imler of LAA) ‘a win-win for everyone! My most recent ventures might turn out like that of Kim Ostermann described her work with Second Chance Pups, “It was the last thing I was looking for, but here I am eleven years later. I love what I do.” Volunteering with Husker Cats and with Lincoln Animal Ambassadors wasn’t on my radar, but they’ve given meaning to my life and helped me feel part of Lincoln.