How the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (AWLA) manages to show dozens of dogs and cats to potential adopters, create special animal treats, answer phones, deal with mountains of laundry and so many other tasks every week?
The secret: the volunteers! A recent calculation determined that the shelter’s volunteers donate so much of their time that they contribute the equivalent of up to 12 staff each year.
With more than 100 volunteers still working from home since the pandemic as well as those volunteering their time in person at the shelter, the volunteer body is more critical than ever, said Echo Keif, Volunteer and Community Events Manager at the AWLA. Home volunteers continue to write animal bios, post information about them on the shelter website, create colorful foster animal flyers, enter data, sew kennel curtains, knit artificial nests to house dislodged birds, and more.
New ways of volunteering that developed during the pandemic continue to reshape their functions, Keif said. Some volunteers are doing home-based animal detective work as part of AWLA’s new Wandering Support Team. Volunteers post all stray animals that have come to the shelter on external sites such as Craigslist and Facebook; they also search these sites for any “extinct” animals that match the description of the stray animals currently in the shelter, and look for animals that may match the lost animals reported to AWLA. “We have found that so many volunteer tasks can be done from home,” Keif said. “It really allowed us to stay in touch with our volunteers. “
Volunteers also continue to be at the heart of on-site shelter operations, many spending precious time one-on-one with the animals. Pet adoption would not be possible without the daily support of volunteer adoption assistants. They work alongside the adoption staff to help show animals to potential adopters, in person and also through Zoom. “They do most of the screenings and meet and greet each other,” said AWLA Volunteer Coordinator Alli Holte. “They treat it like a full-time job and take it very seriously. “
New AWLA volunteers are trained to work with animals through a mentoring system with experienced volunteers. Over the past year, AWLA has also significantly expanded the courses and workshops that are an integral part of the training process. A recent Zoom session featured Animal Services Chief Tony Rankin on how to stay safe when working with dogs who might be more energetic or nervous. Another course, required for all volunteers working with the shelter’s small animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs, revealed how these species communicate and how the shelter uses their signals to better interact with them.
Irene Toporovskaya, a marketing manager for a medical company, started volunteering at the end of 2019, spending several days doing laundry, washing dishes and preparing snacks for the animals. After the required training, she then began working with dogs and composing animal biographies for the website. Toporovskaya was not deterred when the shelter closed for the pandemic; she pursued various volunteer activities at home.
Today, Toporovskaya does it all, both at home and at the shelter: taking dogs for walks, highlighting adoptable animals in videos and photographs, posting articles about newly adopted animals, and transporting animals to outdoor refuges and wildlife rehabilitators. She sees her volunteer work as a learning experience. “The training we received as volunteers has been so invaluable,” Toporovskaya said. “I had never really interacted with scared or hypersensitive dogs before, and now I’m ready to help them channel their energy and calm down.” Toporovskaya even fell in love on one of her shifts – with a pit bull mix that she decided to adopt.
Volunteer Terye Dame’s favorite activity was interacting with the audience at the reception, but when the pandemic made that impossible, she switched to working with the small animals at the shelter. She stroked bearded dragons and worked on target training with guinea pigs – and quickly became the resident turtle whisperer. One day, while looking at the Beethoven and Mozart turtles in their aquarium, she noticed that Mozart was sleeping with his front paws outstretched, which she mentioned to the AWLA animal welfare team. This extra level of information helped the staff realize that Mozart had limited vision, and they adjusted the reservoir she shared with Beethoven to make it more comfortable for her. Dame appreciated that the extra attention she gave to the turtles made it possible to change the enclosure to better meet Mozart’s needs.
But it was a young black rabbit named Jojo who stole Lady’s heart. “He’s the one I compare all the other rabbits to,” she says. “Most rabbits don’t like being held like babies, but Jojo would purr with his teeth and cuddle under my chin.” Lady’s hugs were contagious and she soon attracted other volunteers for bunny duty as well as adopters who had never considered a bunny before.
Dame, a logistics analyst for a government contract company, says her weekly volunteer shift at the shelter is essential to her own happiness. “You can always find me on a Friday night holding a bunny,” she said.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Alexandria Animal Welfare League is a local 501 (c) (3) organization that operates the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter, Alexandria’s only open access animal shelter. In response to the global pandemic, AWLA has implemented a virtual adoption process and operates a Pet Pantry that provides food and pet supplies to community members in need. The AWLA also offers assistance to Alexandrians with questions about the wildlife and animals in the community. More information can be found at https://alexandriaanimals.org/.