Most people assume that an animal shelter is a sad place to be for the dogs and cats. Some people are so convinced of this non-fact that they never visit a shelter. How can you know how a place might be if you won’t set foot inside?

Since I’m there almost every day, I’ll tell you why the sadness is mostly myth.

First of all, well cared-for dogs and cats have been to the vet. Sometimes they have to spend the night. The average beloved cat or dog has likely also spent a week or two in a kennel while their family traveled, moved to a new house, or had construction work or complicated guests. This means that many pets have already experienced a stay in a kennel before they ever arrive in a shelter. While they may miss their families, this is one experience they take in stride.

Second, a large number of dogs and cats in shelters were found neutered and walking around a neighborhood. Not only might they have kennel/vet experience but they also have the new added experience of being outside at night with predators, rain, hunger, cars and sometimes scared or angry people. These pets find the blankets, toys, fresh water and regular meals a welcome relief from life on the street. Do they miss their families? I bet that they do. But many are visibly glad (wagging tails, purring, recognizing caretakers after only a couple of days) to be safe again.

Third, there are some animals that arrive in the shelter in bad shape. They are afraid, they are hungry, they may not trust or want to be near people. While I will not say these animals are always relieved to be in the shelter, they were not always happier in the wild, either. These shy dogs and cats are not feral and could not care for themselves on their own. It can take days and even weeks in a foster home before they feel they can allow a person to approach or give them medicine. This is hard on them. But as a human watching what other humans will do for an animal who is temporarily ungrateful and even a little mean, it is far from sad. Watching these relationships take shape is heart-warming and reaffirms my belief in the resiliency of the spirit.

Truly feral or wild animals are tremendously frightened when confined in any manner, especially when surrounded by domesticated animals they perceive as hunters. The shelter is large and loud. It’s no place to house animals who were not actually lost at all. They were living the only lives they ever knew. But experienced shelter workers have TNR partners, rescue groups, and wildlife rehabbers and veterinarians to help minimize the time these animals will spend inside walls. Since these animals end up in shelters because of some sort of trouble with humans, it’s not as if they were doing just fine on their own. A temporary stint in a shelter is hard, but it is a gateway to a more sustainable situation after neutering or rehab.

Am I just trying to sugarcoat things? Not at all. I’m opening a door for you to see for yourself. There are young puppies and kittens who would do much better in foster homes than in colony rooms or cages. So sign up to foster. There are shy dogs who take a couple of days to adjust to the noise and activity of a shelter. So volunteer to walk dogs and wash bedding and toys. There are feral cats who should never be in the shelter in the first place. So get in touch with your local TNR programmers and see if you can help.

Animal shelters are only sad because we need them at all. But if you actually go inside, you’ll meet the most caring, giving humans you’ve ever known, and you’ll see some really great companion animals getting through a rough time on the road to a better life. Be part of it. Donate, volunteer or adopt locally.

Didi Culp
Director, Humane Society for Shelter Pets