How does the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (AWLA) manage to show dozens of dogs and cats to potential adopters, create special treats for the animals, answer the phone, keep up with mountains of laundry and so many other tasks every week?
The secret: Volunteers! A recent calculation determined that the shelter’s volunteers offer so much of their time that they contribute the equivalent of up to 12 staff members every year.
With more than 100 volunteers still working from home since the pandemic as well as those donating their time in person at the shelter, the volunteer corps is more critical than ever, said AWLA Manager of Volunteers and Community Events Echo Keif. Those volunteering from home continue to write bios about the animals, post information about them on the shelter website, create colorful flyers about animals in foster care, do data entry, sew kennel curtains, knit artificial nests to house dislodged birds, and more.
New ways of volunteering that blossomed during the pandemic continue to reshape their duties, Keif said. Some volunteers do pet detective work from home as part of the AWLA’s new Stray Support Squad. Volunteers post any stray animals who have come to the shelter on external sites such as Craigslist and Facebook; they also search those sites for any “missing” animals who match the description of strays currently in the shelter, and look for animals who might match lost animals reported to the AWLA. “We’ve found that so many volunteer duties can be carried out from home,” Keif said. “That really has allowed us to stay connected with our volunteers.”
Volunteers continue to be the heart of shelter operations on site too, many spending valuable one-on-one time with the animals. Adoption of pets wouldn’t be possible without the daily support of volunteer Adoption Assistants. They work alongside the Adoptions staff to help show animals to potential adopters, in person and also over Zoom. “They do most of the showings and meet and greets,” said AWLA Volunteer Coordinator Alli Holte. “They treat it like a full-time job and take it very seriously.”
New AWLA volunteers are trained to work with animals through a mentoring system with experienced volunteers. In the past year, the AWLA also has greatly expanded classes and workshops that are integral to the training process. A recent Zoom session featured Animal Services Chief Tony Rankin describing how to stay safe when working with dogs who might be more energetic or jumpy. Another class, required for all volunteers working with the shelter’s small animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs, revealed how these species communicate and how the shelter uses their signals to better interact with them.
Irene Toporovskaya, a marketing manager for a medical company, started volunteering in late 2019, putting in several days of doing laundry, washing dishes and preparing snacks for the animals. After the required training, she then began working with dogs and composing bios of animals for the website. Toporovskaya was not deterred when the shelter closed for the pandemic; she continued a variety of volunteering activities from home.
Now Toporovskaya does it all, both from home and at the shelter: taking dogs on outings, highlighting adoptable animals in videos and photographs, posting about newly adopted animals and transporting animals to outside rescues and wildlife rehabilitators. She considers her volunteer work a learning experience. “The training we’ve received as volunteers has been so valuable,” Toporovskaya said. “I hadn’t really interacted with scared or hyper dogs before, and now I’m prepared to help them channel their energy and calm down.” Toporovskaya even fell in love on one of her shifts — with a pitbull mix she decided to adopt.
Volunteer Terye Dame’s favorite activity was interacting with the public at the front desk, but when the pandemic made that impossible, she transitioned to working with the shelter’s small animals. She has petted bearded dragons and worked on target training with guinea pigs — and quickly has become the resident turtle whisperer. Watching turtles Beethoven and Mozart in their tank one day, she noticed that Mozart was sleeping with her front legs extended, which she mentioned to the AWLA’s Animal Care team. This additional level of information helped staff realize that Mozart had limited vision, and they adjusted the tank she shared with Beethoven to make it more comfortable for her. Dame was appreciative that the extra attention she paid to the turtles resulted in changing the enclosure to better suit Mozart’s needs.
But it was a young black rabbit named Jojo who stole Dame’s heart. “He’s the one I compare all other bunnies to,” she said. “Most bunnies don’t like to be held like babies, but Jojo would purr with his teeth and snuggle under my chin.” Dame’s cuddling was infectious, and she soon was attracting other volunteers to rabbit duty as well as adopters who had never considered a rabbit before.
Dame, a logistical analyst for a government contracting company, says her weekly volunteer shift at the shelter is critical to her own happiness. “You can always find me on a Friday night holding a bunny,” she said.
Celebrating its 75th year, the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria is a local 501(c)(3) organization that operates the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter, Alexandria's only open-access animal shelter. In response to the global pandemic, the AWLA has established a virtual adoption process and is operating a Pet Pantry that provides pet food and supplies to community members in need. The AWLA also offers assistance to Alexandrians with questions about wildlife and animals in the community. More information can be found at https://alexandriaanimals.org/.