Shelter Helpers

23 Apr 2014, Posted by admin in Packages,Two Bank, No Comments.

Shelter Helpers

Volunteers form bonds with dogs at local shelters as they wait anxiously for the animals to be adopted.

Story, photos and video by Emily Begley

Barks fill the air as I enter the Sharonville Society for the Prevention of Animals. Like other volunteers at the center, I feel a combined sense of hope and desperation as I walk by dogs that are abandoned, abused and left homeless.

I slip a maroon “SPCA” apron over my head and throw a bright red lead around my neck. The leads are provided to all volunteers, allowing them to remove dogs from their kennels.

Paws smack glass in each unit that I pass. Approximately 3 feet by 8 feet, the narrow units stretch from floor to ceiling and are large enough to accommodate three dogs at most.

The dogs are as diverse as their potential adopters.

Some units house bustling puppies, who crawl over each other for a better view as I walk by. One contains a single dog brought into the shelter at an old age by elderly owners no longer able to care for it.

I make my way down a row, briefly pausing at each unit. A brown pit bull barks playfully while his companion sleeps. The majority of the dogs at the shelter are pit bulls, according to shelter manager Misty Hale-Viscuso, although the kennel has a variety of large and small breeds.

Dogs await adopters in one of the Sharonville SPCA's three kennel rooms.

Dogs await adopters in one of the Sharonville SPCA’s three kennel rooms.

All is silent in the row’s final kennel. A large black dog peers up at me with bold, brown eyes. It sits as close to the glass as it can, pushing its nose through a crack between the door and the wall.

A blue tag dangling from the dog’s chain collar provides no identity other than the number 496.

Standing upright, I examine a card at the top of the unit. “Xena,” it reads, “a two-year-old German Shepherd mix.”

I open the door and lasso the leash around Xena’s neck.

Tail wagging, Xena pulls against the lead as I walk her through the kennels. Barks from the dogs increase in volume as we move into view.

Xena’s happiness relies on the shelter’s volunteers, like me, and employees who divide their attention between hundreds of animals here every day. I’ve been volunteering for more than three years.

There are more than 700 volunteers between the Sharonville and Colerain locations, the only two SPCAs in Cincinnati. But, with more than 7,000 animals adopted between the shelters in 2013, pets far outnumber volunteers.

Xena’s excitement is heartbreaking. It’s a manifestation of the care and interaction that’s missing from her life. It’s a feeling I thought I would get used to, but I never have. But the bonds I form with dogs like Xena, however brief, are the reasons I keep coming back.

Xena and I make our way through the shelter’s lobby into the parking lot. We walk along a brick path outside the building into an adjacent field, where three fenced-in play yards jut off from the shelter.

I take her behind the fence, where a corridor leads into the yards. As always, I choose the middle section, where the grass is fullest and the sun is uninterrupted by shade. I swing open the gate and slip the lead off Xena’s neck.

I can tell Xena has become accustomed to volunteers, and understandably so; she was brought to the shelter on March 6 and has been here ever since. When I remove the leash, she takes off at full speed, cantering along the fence.

Each yard is scattered with toys. A dish and a jug of fresh water are nearby.

Xena brings me a frayed rope, glimmering with her saliva. I play with her until she tires, and I head to a plastic chair at the edge of the yard to watch over her.

When Xena begins plucking dandelions from their roots, I grab the lead. She knows the signal well, running over to me at the sight of it.

Xena relaxes in one of the shelter's outdoor play yards.

Xena relaxes in one of the shelter’s outdoor play yards.

SPCA has an agreement with Francis RecreAcres, a neighboring park that allows volunteers to use their walking trail. The path tangles behind the shelter before stretching around the park’s large soccer field and play area, giving volunteers plenty of room to exercise their dogs.

I see volunteers scattered throughout the trail as we make our way into the park. They’re easily recognizable with their bright red SPCA aprons. Their dogs trot excitedly in front of them, straining against their leads.

Xena stops frequently to sniff bushes, trees and grass, clearly relishing the opportunity to be outdoors.

By the time we complete the trail, Xena is panting heavily in the afternoon heat. I tie a knot in the lead to remove the material from her neck, and her panting slows.

I take her back down the shelter’s brick path and through the lobby, now bustling in the afternoon rush, and I pick up a treat from a jar on the counter.

We go through a pair of doors and enter a room in between the kennels and lobby. Indoor socialization rooms are here, as well as a holding room for small animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs and ferrets.

At the end of the room is a large dry erase board listing unit numbers in each of the kennel rooms. The board is a system to keep track of when dogs are walked. Volunteers mark the date of their walk next to their dog’s kennel number in an attempt to ensure all dogs are taken out of their kennels daily.

Some volunteers scrawl notes on the board; one reads “GREAT DOG” next to a bold red check mark, and a bright green heart is drawn to the side.

I locate Xena’s unit, slowly, biding time before I have to put her back into her kennel. She laps up water from a dish while I locate her unit and write down the date.

Together, Xena and I enter the doors to the kennels. The barks begin together, as composed as a rehearsed performance. Though Xena strains against her lead, I coax her toward her unit with the dog treat from the lobby.

I open the heavy glass door to the unit and step inside with Xena. She sits, letting me slip off her lead, and I hand her the treat.

As she eats, I step outside and latch the door.

She whimpers, but her tail wags, visually grateful for the brief escape. Her nose appears again in the crack between the door and wall, and she licks my hand. She’ll be the first dog I visit the next time I volunteer.

Xena was adopted in late April 2014. For more information about volunteering at the Cincinnati SPCAs, visit

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