“Why aren’t you out there helping people instead of animals?”
I see this sentiment expressed sometimes, usually in some online comment section, where the person writing it revels in snarkiness, almost always under the cloak of anonymity.
While I usually dismiss these sourpusses as your basic animal and people haters, their question always makes me think about how easy it is to view these two groups – animals and people — as being separate when it comes to animal rescue. Of course, we know that the animals we find homes for are going to live with people. However, because our objective is saving animals, it’s mainly the animals on which we focus.
A lot of that focus is simple practicality. This is how rescuing a dog often goes: “I have to fatten up this starved dog I got out of the pound. Then I’ve got to get her treated for heartworms, and then I’ve got to get her spayed and housetrained and socialized with other dogs. Meanwhile, I have to find a rescue group, a foster home, a boarding facility or let her live in my own home until I find her a great home. Oh, wait…I have no idea how she is with cats.”
It’s natural to get so zoned in on making sure that the animal finds a home where it is loved and safe and appreciated that we lose sight of the bigger picture, the effect the pet has on the people who give it a forever home. Sure, we follow up and make sure things are going well, that the dog gets along with the family’s kids or that the cat is thriving in its new environment. But what we don’t know or see is what goes on in the years that follow.
The dog you place in a home with an eight-year-old boy who tosses him a ball in the back yard today may feel like his only friend six years later, when that boy is a teenager nursing his first broken heart, sitting on the back porch with his best buddy licking the tears off his cheek. That once-stray cat now purring in a woman’s lap may be the only comfort that woman finds, the little bit of love that keeps her going when she is grieving the loss of her mother, years down the road.
For someone who is depressed, just knowing they have to get out of bed and walk the dog may be the only thing that gets that person out of the house, gets their body moving and makes their mind just a little bit clearer to get them through whatever hard thing is weighing them down. Having that dog’s unconditional love may even be the one thing that keeps that person from taking their own life.
What a lot of people don’t understand is that helping animals is helping people. When you place a dog in a home with a family, you’re giving those kids the memory of their childhood pet, a picture framed in their mind for their entire lives. And who knows how many people have found love, whether with a new friend or an intimate partner, from striking up a conversation with another animal lover while walking their dog?
Animals remind us that life isn’t just about work and obligation. Sometimes, it’s about being silly enough to crawl around on the floor “barking” at your dog or letting your cat chase you from room to room while you dangle a feather behind. Animals remind us to play, and sometimes, playing and laughing – at your pets and at yourself – are the only things that can keep you going until your life’s road turns to better times.
People who rescue animals can get bogged down in the despair of it all, the images of neglected cats and dogs they can’t forget, the heartlessness of people who dump their pet at a shelter and then walk away laughing with their friend about where they should go for lunch. But be sure to make room in your mind for those other images, the ones of a dog you saved or comforted at the shelter, currently snoozing in front of a cozy fireplace or that matted cat now happily stretched out in a patch of sunlight in her new home.
Most of all, leave a space for the unknown. You may never know the ripple effects of your small – or large – acts of kindness. Whether you helped a stranger at the shelter select a dog that is going to comfort him when his life is lonely or you fostered a cat that went on to sleep curled beside the head of a woman struggling through divorce, your actions have meaning. You did something kind. You made a difference in a world where most people don’t.
You helped an animal and a person.