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How to Volunteer in a Crisis

A scared dog finds comfort in the arms of a trained responder.

Last summer, Arizona blew up in a series of wildfires that had the entire state looking like it was covered in the smog normally isolated to the Phoenix area. This summer we’re facing dryer conditions and hotter temperatures. So it’s not if, it’s when we’ll get another round of fires. When we do, homes will be evacuated and bustling towns will turn to ghost towns. In neighboring towns, schools empty of students will become full of refugees. And not far from those shelters designated for humans will be temporary animal shelters as well.

When disasters strike, people rush to help. It’s one of the redeeming qualities of people. So naturally, temporary animal shelters are inundated not only with four-legged evacuees but with people wanting to help. But here’s the rub: We can’t let you help with the animals.

It’s nothing personal. It comes down to safety and responsibility. When we open a shelter and admit animals, we take on a legal and moral responsibility. To those owners who may have already lost too much, we are making a promise that we will take good care of their pet. We’re not only providing safe haven for their pets, we’re providing peace of mind for their hearts and minds.

It’s because of this enormous responsibility that we can’t accept offers from kind strangers to walk dogs or pet cats. Animals in temporary shelters are stressed to their max. With proper training, handling skills, and vigilance, we can manage that stress and eventually reduce it. But in the meantime we have to be prepared for animals that may want to bite, or bolt. And while off-the-street volunteers have the best of intentions, we just don’t have a way to properly assess their skills and strengths in order to trust them to handle the animals in our care. There are few things worse in this situation than having to call an owner and tell them that we’ve lost their beloved pet when it got away from its handler. And the only way we have to prevent that from happening is to restrict the animal handling to our staff members who have already proven their skills.

This isn’t to say that walk-up volunteers aren’t welcome or needed. There are plenty of jobs to do at a temporary shelter. They’re just not as glamorous. They include washing dishes and sweeping floors. Anyone willing to make frequent runs to the laundromat with bags and bags of dirty towels and blankets will win shelter workers’ undying devotion and gratitude.

For those people who really only want to help with the animal handling itself, there’s still a way for you to do it. Volunteer now. Become a familiar face at the regular animal shelter and hone your skills in advance. By showing the shelter management that you are a reliable and valuable asset before disaster strikes, you’re much more likely to be requested as a reliable and valuable asset during a disaster.

We’re so grateful for all of our volunteers. They truly make a difference in our lives and in our animals’ lives. But during disasters, it’s just not possible to devote our resources to training new volunteers. We have to focus on the animals in need and their human families.

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