Shiny black eyes veiled with ennui peered forlornly through the kennel door. As I approached, he raised his head with hesitant expectancy. I slid my way into the cramped kennel and stroked his immense coat. Instant gratitude and devotion emerged in his expression. Outside I released him in the single grassy run. It was raining. The agile shepherd dashed recklessly through the grass, impulsively halting to appreciate each smell, then racing back and pressing himself against my legs.

Ellery Young

Reveling in the liberty and affection, I witnessed pure joy in this dog. Re-entering the Sonoma County Animal Shelter, each dog reflected a similar hopeful stare, and the glimmer of a loving spirit so easily exposed.
The animal shelter cares for about 6,000 animals a year. With the mission to “Create a balance between the population of domestic animals and responsible homes to care for them within the County of Sonoma,” the shelter each year has nearly 2,000 animals adopted, 1,000 returned to their owners, some animals transferred to other shelters and 2,000 animals spay/neutered annually.
There are many misconceptions surrounding the role of a county animal shelter. Because it is government-operated, the shelter is required to accept any animal brought in without regard to its condition. Thus, the animal may be terminally ill or not adoptable because of vicious behavior. The shelter absolutely seeks to avoid euthanizing animals. Regrettably, in certain instances it is necessary, given the current resources our local community and the state have to offer.
Other organizations are referred to as “no kill” shelters, but they can refuse to accept any animal they find to be not adoptable. These shelters receive the majority of donations from the community because people view them as more humane and they believe the county shelter is sufficiently funded by the government.
I am not criticizing the support of any shelter because each organization has its role but shares the ultimate goal of caring for and protecting animals. My experience volunteering at the Sonoma County Animal Shelter has revealed a hard-working and devoted staff that strives to provide the animals the best care possible. Certain resources at the shelter are lacking however.
The dogs live in small but clean and functional kennels with concrete floors. While they have bedding for the dogs, the shelter is always seeking more blankets and towels for them. Weekly volunteers take the dogs out for exercise in the service lot, two fenced-in gravel runs, or the single, highly sought after grass run. My volunteer experiences have inspired me to help raise money for improvements to the undeveloped exercise areas.
By providing dogs with the opportunity to simply run through an expanse of grass, you allow them to experience that essential bliss that characterizes a dog. These dogs, so willing to trust and eager to love us, deserve our love and attention. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
I initially entered the shelter with the intention of providing attention and love to improve the animals’ lives, but the earnest affection with which my attention is reciprocated has improved my own life.
Working at the shelter I am confronted with certain discomforts: the loud barking, cleaning up waste and the deep ache I feel when meeting a neglected or abandoned dog. The sincere joy of interacting with the dogs and brightening their day overwhelms any reservations. At the shelter, the distractions and stress of the rest of my life are set aside as I engross myself in the needs of the dogs. I am struck by the happy and hopeful countenance of so many of the dogs despite their situation. Other dogs that become timid in this chaotic setting remind me how important it is that these dogs find caring homes.
Working with the shy dogs has taught me to be very patient and gentle. The progression may be slow but simply being a calm, positive presence for the dog can help them gain trust and comfort. It is so satisfying when one of these dogs finally allows you to pet them and seeks your attention. Each week as I leave the shelter I am met with the same feeling of contentment and happiness.