When shel­ters give back

An­i­mal shel­ters aren’t sim­ply refuge for aban­doned pets; they can help stu­dents gain valu­able life lessons and work skills which few other en­vi­ron­ments could pro­vide.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Pets - Ellen Whyte https://www.face­book.com/ewhyte

I AL­WAYS think of shel­ters as im­por­tant but ter­ri­bly sad places. All those aban­doned an­i­mals, des­per­ate for a lov­ing home – it’s a heart­breaker.

It takes a very spe­cial kind of per­son to work in these places and not burn out, so, when I heard that Paws had in­terns, I first thought they must be vet­eri­nary stu­dents. To my sur­prise, they were no such thing.

Be­ing tremen­dously nosy, I in­vited my­self over and went to see what was go­ing on. What I found was a won­der­fully up­lift­ing story that I sim­ply have to share.

One of the cur­rent in­terns is Ophe­lia An­drew, a 23-year-old Psy­chol­ogy stu­dent in her sec­ond year of her bach­e­lor pro­gramme at HELP university. And guess what? She’s not study­ing an­i­mal be­hav­iour!

“I want to be a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist,” Ophe­lia shares, “and at first, I was look­ing at in­tern­ing with an NGO that works with kids, or per­haps a cor­po­ra­tion, so, I can work with lots of dif­fer­ent peo­ple. But then the list came out of sug­gested con­tacts, and I saw Paws – I called them straight away.”

Ophe­lia is an an­i­mal lover, with Terry, her 11-year-old mixed breed be­ing one of her best and old­est friends. How­ever, while this 440hour in­tern­ship in­volves a cer­tain amount of cud­dling puppies and walk­ing older dogs, the real lessons in­volve deal­ing with clients.

“The hard­est thing is when some­one comes in to sur­ren­der their dog,” Ophe­lia ad­mits. “On my first day, there was a guy who wanted to drop off his 10-year-old sick dog. I told him that we would take it but that there was a big chance we’d have to put him down. We’re full to burst­ing point; vet bills add up fast and we just can’t cope. That’s when he started yelling at me.”

Like many young peo­ple, Ophe­lia was a lit­tle fright­ened – both by the ag­gres­sion and the shout­ing.

“I was try­ing to ex­plain as nicely as I could that we just aren’t able to do ev­ery­thing for ev­ery­one, but it didn’t work,” Ophe­lia re­calls. “He screamed at me, and then went off, tak­ing his dog with him.”

Now, two months later, she looks back at this and shrugs. “Back then, I was an­gry and frus­trated when he left. It’s still not nice to be yelled at, but I’m not af­fected by it as much any­more. For one thing, I’m more con­fi­dent and that’s be­cause Agnes, Ed­ward and Leong, PAWS full-time staff, coached me. Also, I’m not fright­ened any­more when peo­ple yell at me!”

One of the hard­est jobs is putting an­i­mals down.

“We can’t keep them all,” Ophe­lia says. “I know it’s just not pos­si­ble but it’s so up­set­ting. I think peo­ple rush into things, buy­ing with­out think­ing, and they sim­ply don’t pause to con­sider con­se­quences. They buy an an­i­mal be­cause it’s cute or be­cause of pity and then dis­cover they can’t keep it. Later, when I’m work­ing, it may help for me to talk to peo­ple about de­ci­sion-mak­ing.”

While shel­ters are about an­i­mals first, the hu­man sto­ries are also com­pelling.

“A lady came round to sur­ren­der her dog be­cause she’d been di­ag­nosed with cancer. None of her fam­ily would take her pet, and she was in tears. That was re­ally hard,” Ophe­lia says. “It re­ally got to me. I was think­ing, what if that were me? What can I say to this lady that will help?”

Thank­fully, there are also some happy sto­ries.

“There are the adop­tions,” Ophe­lia says. “Also, some of the peo­ple who come here are re­ally ap­pre­cia­tive. They sur­ren­der pets they’ve found or can’t keep and they’re grate­ful we’re here. And I’m meet­ing loads of peo­ple, like the vol­un­teers who walk the dogs. I’m en­joy­ing this – a lot!”

Away from the shel­ter, sim­ply pitch­ing up to work for 10 weeks and putting in a full day has some in­ter­est­ing lessons, too.

“Back home, when I did my di­ploma, I worked as a tu­tor, and a pro­moter,” Ophe­lia says. “It was fun, but I was living with my fam­ily and that meant back-up. Now, I have to do my own house­work, laun­dry and so on. It’s tir­ing some­times, but to have the dogs greet me ev­ery morn­ing is great! I’m re­ally en­joy­ing my­self.”

And that’s the up­lift­ing thing about this story. I met Ophe­lia for an hour but I’ll tell you this: if I were the CEO of a com­pany, I’d hire her in a heart­beat. The soft skills she’s picked up dur­ing these few months range from com­mu­ni­ca­tion to con­flict man­age­ment, and they’re im­pres­sive.

An­i­mal shel­ters are there pri­mar­ily to pro­vide for aban­doned pets, how­ever, open­ing them up to in­terns is a win-win sit­u­a­tion for any com­mu­nity.

— ELLEN WHYTE

Ophe­lia is learn­ing a lot through her in­tern­ship at the an­i­mal shel­ter.

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