Yesterday, a friend who I volunteer with contacted me because she was experiencing difficulties in continuing to volunteer with homeless pets. The tipping point in her case was a local animal control shelter who recently euthanized all of its cats (about 80) because a strong virus swept through the shelter. I’m not passing judgment on whether the shelter jumped the gun or did the kindest thing in making sure that these cats did not die a gruesome death from the virus. However, it caused my friend to become very upset knowing that these beautiful kitties, who were tossed away by humans, had their lives ended so abruptly through no fault of their own. While the two of us volunteer for a cat orphanage that does not euthanize unless a cat is in its final stages of life, she expressed that helping homeless animals and hearing the terrible tragedies that happen everyday was causing her significant distress to where she was unsure whether she could continue.

Her worries are common amongst people who love animals. When the realities of helping animals causes us stress, sleepless nights, anxiety, and more, it is called compassion fatigue. Many of us take that leap and help animals in shelters, while too many others simply turn away hoping that “someone else” will help the animals. I frequently hear “I could never volunteer in a shelter, or even go in to a shelter to adopt, because I would want to save them all.” My gut reaction to that statement is that if you love animals, you cannot turn your back; if you turn your back, then you need to question the genuineness of your love of animals. But I also understand that all of us have different sensitivities and ways of handling difficult situations. So how can we empower more people who love animals to get involved, yet keep their sanity in the process?

My next book, Defending the Defenseless (due out this Fall), discusses this in depth and provides a myriad of ways to get involved. I, too, am very sensitive when it comes to the care of animals. I cannot even watch a movie where an animal is harmed even though I know it is not real. But on the flip side, and likely as a result of my training as a prosecuting attorney, I can work on animal cruelty cases and legislative issues to better protect animals. When I hear of injustices and animals being harmed, it lights a fire in my belly to take action, not to cower. But that’s me and not everyone has that instinctive reaction to get involved. If my action can help just one animal, then it is worth feeling sad and grief for all of the others that I could not help. And over the past 11 years of actively volunteering in shelters, I can say that one-step-after-another has resulted in me helping thousands of pets. Spending three years at a shelter to end the practice of pound seizure has since protected tens of thousands of shelter pets in my home state of Michigan, yet before the ban I had to watch pets being sacrificed in the name of science. Had I and others given up, nothing would have changed. And while it was difficult at the time, I can look back and know that the distress in achieving a positive outcome far out weighed the tragedies.

At this moment, I have Pandora in foster care at my house who traveled here from the island of St. Croix. She’s 6 years old and stressed over her ordeal and all of the change she has experienced. She simply stopped eating and each day I work with her to feel better so that she can eat. Yes, it is stressful on me and it would have been easy to turn away and hope that “someone else” would help her. But I know that with a little of my time and love, she will get better. And while I have lost some animals along the way and grieved for them, I have also helped more than I can count.

So I expressed to my friend that having a love of animals means that we all must get involved. And there are countless ways to help that can help you maintain your own well being. Some people are resilient enough to investigate animal cruelty, pull animals out of hoarding situations and puppy mills, or help an animal pass on when they are suffering. While other people may be better helping animals from a distance, such as creating and updating websites that feature animals, working on marketing and publicity efforts, doing follow-up adoption calls, or raising money. In the vast world of animal rescue and protection, there is a place for everyone who loves animals.

So if you are one of those people who do not believe that you could volunteer hands-on with homeless, abused or neglected pets, dig deep into your heart and find a way to help. If you truly love animals, the joys will far outweigh the tragedies. If you volunteer to help animals, please share how you are involved and let’s inspire others to join in.

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