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Volunteering with animals

Published on: May 01, 2008

Many area high schools — both public and independent — require students to perform community service or “service learning” hours to graduate. For the animal lover, the choices are broad, and can involve sheltered animals or their own family pet.

Volunteering at a shelter

Most animal shelters have some type of junior volunteer program for older teens, though age requirements can vary. Almost every municipality has a shelter for companion animals. There are also groups specializing in specific types of animals — from ferrets to horses — and care for the unwanted, neglected and/or abused.

Shelter work is definitely rewarding, but also can be hard work. The work can range from “fun” jobs — like walking/exercising dogs and socializing (cuddling and petting) cats — to physical labor like cleaning cages. A volunteer will have to be prepared to do whatever is needed, and often, their help is essential. Sandi Ackerman, executive director of Rabbit Meadows in Redmond notes, “Volunteers help our organization keep rescuing and adopting out the rabbits, rodents and ferrets in our care.”

Homeward Pet, a rescue/shelter/adoption facility in Woodinville, has about 50 dogs and cats at any given time. Terry Ingless, volunteer project director, says, “The kids don’t just come and play, they come to care for the shelter animals and help to socialize them by feeding, cleaning, brushing and cuddling, to make them more adoptable.”

For older teens considering a veterinary career, the Feral Cat Project in North Seattle provides the opportunity to learn all aspects of prepping a cat for spay/neuter surgery and monitoring cats after surgery.

Horse lovers can get their equine fix by volunteering at Hope for Horses, a nonprofit in Woodinville that rescues and cares for mistreated horses. Volunteers muck stalls, wash buckets and sweep floors, but also groom and exercise the horses, and may assist in veterinary or farrier procedures. Jenny Edwards, founder and executive director, says, “Teens get the opportunity to learn about relationships and commitment. We could not operate without our volunteers.”

Home-based opportunities

If logistics make it difficult for a teen to get to and from a facility to volunteer on a regular basis, many organizations offer the opportunity to foster an animal at home.

The Seattle Animal Shelter requires an adult family member to oversee the care, but the teen can take on a big chunk of the responsibility. Virginia Dalton, animal care supervisor at the shelter, points out that there are a wide variety of fostering opportunities-from orphaned kittens to older animals recovering from surgery. “The girls all want kittens,” says Dalton, “but we have all kinds of animals that need fostering: dogs and puppies, hamsters, guinea pigs, rodents — even reptiles — stuff boys would like, too.”

At Lynnwood-based Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), hands-on youth volunteer opportunities focus on fostering companion animals. Foster care coordinator Sherri Levine says that this year PAWS has had “a noticeable increase in teens signing up, doing it with their friends. I’ve been really impressed with the level of care that these kids are giving and their general level of enthusiasm.”

Levine notes that teens who don’t have the ability to volunteer on-site or foster at home can also assist an organization by spearheading a fund-raising campaign. She mentored a teen last year who used her work at PAWS as a theme for her senior project. The young woman fostered a nursing mama cat and kittens, created a brochure about shelter cats and raised funds for the organization.

The human-animal connection

Teens who love animals but want a project that also helps people, can investigate animal-assisted therapy (AAT). This volunteer activity involves people-pet teams that have been trained to visit various institutions. Visits can be as simple as meeting with residents of a senior center, to working with a physical therapist motivating patients to exercise. Other teams visit at schools to encourage reluctant readers to read aloud to the dogs. The Seattle area is home to Delta Society, a national nonprofit whose Pet Partners program offers training and registration for AAT volunteers ( . Though dogs are the most common “pet partners,” mellow cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and even a few llamas and miniature horses have been registered.

Brianne Ryan, now 18, started a local Pet Partners youth group three years ago to provide support and information on visiting opportunities for other youths. The group meets the third Tuesday of each month at Delta’s headquarters in Bellevue. Ryan has been a Pet Partner with her miniature poodle, Ivory, since she was 12. As a senior working toward her international baccalaureate diploma, Ryan’s Pet Partners visits are “a very enjoyable way” to fulfill the required 50 hours of community service. Ryan, who visits at senior centers, notes that the residents are just as excited to see her as they are her dog. “They love to tell me stories about the dogs they had when they were my age. It’s a really great experience to visit with them.”

Hippotherapy is a form of AAT in which people with a variety of physical and/or emotional disabilities ride horses as part of their treatment. The Seattle area has two facilities that use teen volunteers: Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center in Woodinville and Children’s Therapy Center’s program in Newcastle. Volunteers must have experience with horses and be able to lift a saddle over their heads. Duties can include assisting riders and care of the horses.

Community service is a great way for teens to learn to give back to society and it looks good on college applications. For nonprofit organizations, opportunities for teens can be a way to create lifelong volunteers. It’s a win-win for all — especially the animals!

Andrea Leigh Ptak is a Seattle-based freelance writer.


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