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Volunteer, Foster Programs Keep Shelter Thriving

For more than 25 years, volunteers have dramatically improved the lives of pets at the Seattle Animal Shelter. In 1997 volunteers began to work in tandem with Shelter staff, completing tasks that fall outside of staff responsibilities. Volunteers make it easier for staff to focus on their core jobs while providing extra support for the animals.

Find out more about volunteering at the Shelter

Some of the earliest volunteer work was dog walking and that’s when Get Fit with Fido was born. Dedicated runners and animal lovers take dogs with them for exercise sessions three times per week at local parks. The pups come back relaxed because they’ve been able to release extra energy and that improves their health and behavior, making it easier for them to be adopted.

“The volunteer program gave people a chance to see how caring the staff were and how hard they worked to help animals,” said retired Shelter Director Ann Graves. “It gave them a chance to see behind the scenes. Before that we were the pound. We were the villains – the dog catchers. Once the volunteer program began the Shelter became a more welcoming place. People commented on the change and how it was a much nicer place for staff, volunteers, adopters, and animals.”

The volunteer program made a positive difference in the quality of life of the animals. Previously some dogs did not get walked every day. Cats did not have a chance to be socialized and spent all their time in their cages.

And when the foster care program began a short time later, it allowed volunteers to care for Shelter pets in their homes, which has improved the lives of countless animals and helped them get adopted faster.

“It’s been a game changer for us,” said Don Baxter, Deputy Director of Operations and Manager of Field Services. “I remember walking into the dog kennels and there would be three or four dogs in every kennel. Euthanasia rates were high. Stress was high for both the animals and the staff. The foster program changed that. Sometimes we even have empty kennels now.”

Many see the volunteer program as the legacy of the late Don Jordan, who became Shelter Director in 1996. At that time, the Shelter was euthanizing about half of all the animals in its care. Thousands of healthy animals were killed every year because there was no room for them at the Shelter.

Read more about Don Jordan.

Before volunteers were allowed to foster Shelter pets, many of the staff members would care for an animal in their own homes to prevent it from being euthanized.

“There are a lot of trainings and forms to account for the risk and liability of volunteers caring for animals that may be involved in animal cruelty cases that had not been decided,” said Graves. “But those were the pets that needed in-home care the most to help rehabilitate them and overcome the abuse.

“Within the first five years of the program the euthanasia rate completely flipped so that more animals were being adopted than the number of those euthanized.

“It takes more people to care for animals than to kill them and the volunteers helped to make it possible for staff in animal care to focus on caring for the animals rather than cleaning kennels or doing laundry.”

While the Shelter has a volunteer coordinator on staff, the volunteer program is largely run by a group of volunteer team leaders. The leaders coordinate their own programs and recruit, train, and supervise the volunteers on their teams.

Volunteer and Foster Coordinator Steph Renaud began working at the Shelter just before the COVID pandemic started. All volunteer work was on hold for several months until staff could figure out how to bring them back safely. Foster volunteers became even more critical to animal welfare.

“Lots of foster volunteers, new and old, stepped up to care for animals in their homes and their volunteer leads and foster teams stepped up extra to support them all,” said Renaud. “We had to move to an appointment-based system and use telemedicine to consult with veterinary staff.”

“It was great that people were more interested in adopting during the stay-home order, but it was challenging trying to keep up with all the applications and emails,” she said. “Then we had a big animal rescue that brought more than 200 rabbits and guinea pigs to the Shelter.”

Volunteers from the dog and cat teams (and even some loaned from nearby shelters) joined the critter team in fostering most of rescued animals. The adoption process included volunteers who drove critters to shelters and animal rescue groups throughout the state. And when the Shelter received 70 under-socialized cats from a hoarding situation, volunteers from across the Shelter fostered them, helping the cats to come out of their shells and be adopted.

While the volunteers change, there are at least a dozen who have donated their time for more than 20 years.

“The value of each volunteer’s time is worth more than any donation of money. It is priceless when people devote their time to help animals,” said Graves. “Every single volunteer donates something they will never get back – their time.”

She recalls working on Thanksgiving Day many years ago and seeing the volunteer dog walkers come in to exercise the dogs. It made her cry to know how dedicated they were.

“From day-to-day operations to emergencies, we can always count on them showing up to help us make sure the animals get the best care and outcomes possible and are always surrounded by love and compassion.”

In 2010 a new group of volunteers was formed, The Seattle Animal Shelter Foundation. With a core of Shelter volunteers at its heart, the Foundation became the logical next step to raise funds for unbudgeted items needed for animal care.

“We wouldn’t have a lot of the assets we have now without the Foundation,” said Graves. “They work their butts off to help the animals and their Furry 5K Fun Run and Walk remains the key fundraiser for the Help the Animals Fund.”

Thanks to all the amazing volunteers who give their time, energy, and funds to help pets at the Shelter.

Find out more about volunteering at the Shelter