Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Shelter Animals - Writing your Passion

When we first moved to this area over six years ago, I went to the local animal shelter to volunteer my time. I am a staunch animal lover, and wondered what I could do to help. After a short afternoon of training, I was allowed to walk the dogs and pet the cats, with the idea that it would help their loneliness and perhaps allow the animals to become more adoptable.

I kept up this routine for a few months. I'd take a choke chain and leash, wander down the concrete aisleway, bombarded with the frantic barking of manic dogs standing on their back legs with paws against the chain link gates that held them in. I'd pick a dog that appeared fairly friendly and looked like it wouldn't knock me over. I'd slip the chain collar over his head, drag him (or it would drag me) out the front door of the shelter and give the poor animal a few minutes outside the confines of his prison. Sometimes I would turn the dog into a fenced outside yard and allow him to sniff and smell around. Eventually I moved on to the cats.

We adopted two of these kittens.

Cats are my most favorite animal in the world. Seeing them trapped in their tiny cages, plaintively wailing to be let out, or depressed, hunched in a ball in the back of their cage, blocking out the world, almost broke my heart. Still, I persisted, stroking them under their chins, cuddling the pitiful kittens, crowded in cages together for sometimes weeks at a time.

It broke my heart, especially knowing the awful percentages: roughly 50% of dogs and 75% of cats in shelters are euthanized each year. And I'm certainly not knocking animals shelters. They do the best they can with limited resources and the overwhelming onslaught of unwanted animals. But I kept thinking - surely there is something more I could do? Raise money for the shelters? Volunteer at pet give-aways? Give speeches to educate people on the need to spay and neuter their animals?

But how much of a difference could I make? Really. One person. And then, as I became more focused on my writing career, I started to realize that perhaps I am making a difference, in the best way I can, my own way. Because without being directly aware of it - kindness and compassion for animals creeps in to every single story I write.

illustration by Nancy Lane, from my novel FINDING CHANCE

The main character in my novel might be a girl, or a boy, but in every single novel I've written so far - a starving dog, a neglected horse, a lost cat, or an animal that needs to be saved - has crept in under the radar. Not by direct choice - because I've never been a fan of books for kids with overt "lessons." But these situations find their way into my books in a more subtle way.

One of the reasons I'm such a big advocate of putting children and animals together is that caring for/about an animal (even in the pages of a book) is one of the ways young humans develop compassion, responsibility, kindness, and respect for living things.

And just as one unspayed mother cat and her offspring can reproduce more than 400,000 kittens in her lifetime - can the power of one child, or many children, reading about animals - help them develop traits that will ultimately make the world a better place for humans, as well as a more compassionate place for all animals?

Although I cannot take in every animal I'd like to bring home, I hope I've found the very best way to help dogs and cats and kittens in shelters everywhere. I will stay home and write about them.


Amy Lukavics said...

Oh my gosh, Linda, I LOVED this post. Cats are also my very, VERY favorite animals in this entire world. I love them, so much. I love dogs too, it's not true that you can only like one or the other, but cats are beautiful, amazing creatures.

I'm so happy that you write about the stuff that you do. You already have made a difference. And that difference is only going to get bigger and bigger!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Okay, you almost made me cry...Lovely post. So honest. I've felt that way before as an animal lover and as a teacher and mother. How do you choose who to look after? Who to love and protect? You just have to do the best you can....That's all you can do.

Shelby Bach said...

Awwww, Linda - I totally just teared up just now! What a beautiful post!

I think that the bond between children and animals is incredibly, incredibly powerful, and now that I think about it, I believe you're absolutely right - caring for animals does teach those qualities.

alison said...

Great Post Linda and so necessary to be an advocate for animals, and kids!

Cynthia Reese said...

I am an unabashed cat person. I like dogs (have two, and wouldn't trade 'em for anything), but cats are so wonderfully self-contained.

Of course, besides cats and dogs, I have The Kiddo's two goldfish. She's hinting for a gartersnake or a lizard or a bird, but, newp. Not gonna happen.

Love the pix!

Vonna said...

Linda, I absolutely agree with you that books are a wonderful way to get kids to connect with animals and care about their welfare. We care about what we know. A child who has never experienced a pet in real life can fall in love with an animal from a book. The compassion they feel for the fictitious animal translates into compassion for real animals. Keep spreading the love!

Linda Benson said...

Thank you so much for your comments and encouragement. It makes me feel like I'm on the right course. I do think we 'write what we know' best of all. And perhaps the strength of a quiet book dealing with anguish and compassion for another creature can be as powerful as the biggest blockbuster.

Beth said...

I understand how you feel so well. I recently started walking dogs at the local shelter. I particularly like the pit bulls and walk them first. One is a short squat thing, Karma is as wide as she is tall. We walk all the dogs in a harness and Karma always manages to clock me one with her head when I put it on her. I have had so many fat lips from that dog. Yesterday the weather was really nice, and I had just finished getting hay before I went to the shelter, so I was beat. Karma was the first dog I walked and half way to the little field we walk around she laid down. I had to encourage her to at least make it to a bench under a tree. There is a tie out hanging down and I clipped it to her harness. Karma looked around and then jumped up on the bench and leaned her big ol' body up against me. I put her arm around her and just watched the breeze move the trees and birds fly over head. After a few minutes Karma turned to me and started licking my neck, how poetic with the stereotype of pit bulls going for the jugular. When her time was up I walked her back to the kennel. She just looked at the cars, I could hear her thinking, "Which one is yours? Can't I go home with you?" Last night I just held my own little dog and cried for Karma sitting alone in a kennel.

Linda Benson said...

Beth, I am so glad you are taking time with some of the pit bulls. I know they are hard to place, as are the multitude of plain black dogs. Bless you for being so kind.

And I do think that socializing with the animals helps them calm down, and increases their chance of finding a home.

Cheryl Ann said...

What a wonderful, thoughtful post! I have 5 horses, all of whom are rescues and 1 dog from the swap meet! Believe me, our next dog will be a shelter dog!