By Alyssa Marchese, Volunteer Writer

In the spring of 2021, an influx of intakes occurred across all three Dumb Friends League shelters, which quickly became a capacity concern. To learn more about this situation, I interviewed the League’s Vice President of Sheltering, Katie Parker. Katie expressed that part of the challenge stemmed from the need for the League to take in an unusually high number of animals over the course of a few months. Similar intake numbers had not been seen in over a decade. While the League and other shelters were experiencing similar numbers of adoptions, the volume of intakes across all species was significantly higher, creating an imbalance that resulted in shelters becoming overpopulated with animals in need of loving homes.

I asked Katie if there was a catalyst to this situation. She noted that when people began to return to their new, post-COVID-19 lives this past spring, many seemed to realize they were no longer in the position to care for their pets. The pandemic has caused varying degrees of transformation and upheaval for individuals, and for some, it became too difficult to take care of their pets while trying to adjust to the radical changes in their lives. These reasons led many to make the difficult decision to surrender their animals.

Katie described how the increase in intakes, and associated capacity challenges, risked limiting the League’s ability to help other animal welfare programs across the region manage cruelty and neglect cases. The League is proudly associated with numerous other animal welfare programs, so being unable to assist and take in their animals was a concerning risk. Additionally, overpopulation at the League led to a greater likelihood of animals becoming stressed, which increased the risk of disease spreading throughout the shelter. Lastly, more animals in the shelter increased the workload for both staff and volunteers, leading to more complex workdays and the need to implement different strategies to relieve the burden. One creative solution involved placing additional animals in foster homes, which created more space in the shelter for new intakes. Another approach was to utilize all League facilities to manage the number of animals and ensure that each shelter reserved capacity to serve the community.

Completing day-to-day responsibilities at the shelter, like cleaning the animals’ living areas, also benefitted from creative thinking. In order to be as efficient as possible, new strategies were enacted to establish an effective routine that guaranteed all animals received clean areas and bedding. In fact, procedures created for cleaning small mammal (or “smam”) habitats during this time are still in place to this day.

Despite what felt like a never-ending influx of animals, by the beginning of November 2021, each of the League’s shelters began to experience immense relief. When I asked Katie about the root of this relief, she said that the community played an extraordinary role in helping the League. From opening their homes to fostering animals to adopting from the League, many in the community went above and beyond to help. Katie commented that the aid from the community during a truly stressful time was “encouraging” for the League and ultimately helped the organization return to more normal levels of animal population and standard operations.

Like the impact of COVID-19 on the League’s intake population, the virus has also affected the organization’s volunteer community. I had the opportunity to interview the Director of Volunteer Engagement, Megan Newhouse, about changes in the League’s volunteer population throughout the pandemic. Megan began by saying that, in response to the onset of the pandemic in late winter 2020, the League initially paused their volunteer program and instead relied on staff to keep the shelter running. However, this lasted less than two weeks before the League’s staff made it clear that volunteers were desperately needed to help complete daily tasks. After the need for help was voiced, a limited number of volunteers who were comfortable returning to their positions were brought in to help with the daily operational needs. In addition, all volunteers were given the option to take an extended leave of absence and were told to return to their positions only when they felt comfortable. Megan noted that the League was “very fortunate that the bulk of our volunteers stuck it out during the pandemic,” since many other animal welfare organizations lost up to half of their volunteer population.

So why is the League currently focusing on onboarding more volunteers? It’s important to remember that, even though most volunteers have returned in recent months, it wasn’t always possible for Megan and her staff to onboard new volunteers during the pandemic – at least at the rate they were doing before COVID-19 emerged. Megan shared that interest in volunteering is still high, but a new trend has surfaced where the number of prospective volunteers who convert into regularly serving is much lower than it was before the pandemic. Megan thinks this is likely due to changes in people’s lives, leading to a decrease in people who are able to commit to volunteering.

To bolster recruitment and the organization has the volunteer support it needs, the League has implemented new measures to generate program interest within the community. These comprehensive strategies include bringing a friend to volunteer days, distributing flyers and pamphlets to local businesses, reaching out to individuals who have expressed interest in volunteering but have not completed the recruitment process, and posting the League’s volunteer opportunities on community boards and volunteer websites.

It’s evident that shelters benefit greatly from their volunteer population, but volunteering isn’t just impactful for the organization. Volunteering provides individuals with a sense of community and the feeling that they are giving back to local organizations. Volunteers at the League can also use their service work as an initial experience of working with animals, which can help prepare them for careers with animals in the future. Above all, volunteering at the Dumb Friends League allows people to foster special and unmatched connections with animals in need.

However, it is important to acknowledge that not everyone is in a position to devote weekly time and energy to volunteer at a shelter. Luckily, there are many alternative opportunities one can take advantage of that are still beneficial to the League. For example, becoming a foster parent may be less demanding since this is a role that can be fulfilled at home. Additionally, foster parents are only required to foster one animal a year, making for a more relaxed commitment. Other ways to support the League include helping with the annual Furry Scurry event (which usually takes place each May), making at-home enrichment items for shelter dogs and cats, connecting with the League’s financial donation programs, and purchasing supplies from the League’s Amazon wish list to donate to the shelter. One final way to donate time to the League involves signing up for the community service program and assisting with essential tasks that don’t require high levels of commitment, such as helping with laundry, cage washing, and building maintenance.