The animals at the shelter have come to recognize her voice.
As Donna Ponder passes by the rows of cages, the dogs clamor at their metal bars, hoping to catch a glimpse of her wide smile and hear her warm, friendly greeting. The sound of barking can be deafening, but for Ponder, it’s practically music to her ears.
They know when she comes around, it’s time for a breather.
One lucky dog is chosen first — Coco, a tan and white senior female with an endearing underbite — to get a taste of the fresh November air and roam the yard. When Ponder leans down to extend her hand and greet Coco, her long ponytail slides over her shoulder, and the large capital letters on the back of her purple T-shirt stand out.
ADOPT. FOSTER. VOLUNTEER. DONATE. EDUCATE.
For nearly five years now, she’s lived by those words.
“I retired in 2014, and that was my No. 1 thing that I was going to do when I retired, was come and help with the shelter,” Ponder said as she sat at a conference room at the Jefferson City Animal Shelter. She’s somehow able to steal an hour away from the day’s long list of tasks — “Whatever they need done.”
The kind of help Ponder provides the shelter with isn’t always easily quantifiable. However, her hours are — and they can run up to four hours a day, equivalent to a part-time job. A regular day at the shelter includes changing out towels in the cat cubbies, washing and sanitizing dishes, folding laundry, scooping waste, walking dogs and reporting changes in behavior or physical wellness to the shelter veterinarians.
Volunteers from the Friends of JCAS group, such as Ponder, can spend so much time among the animals that they pick up on personality traits and are able to notice changes that may not have been caught by the full-time shelter staff.
Their help is crucial, JCAS Manager Lori Blatter said, and it helps that the volunteers are willing to get down and dirty.
“It is what it is. (Animals) eat, they poop. Hello?!” Ponder said with a laugh. “And it has to be done, and I’m OK with it. It just has to be done.”
“There’s a lot of things you never think about to do here,” Blatter added. “I don’t know what we would do without all of (the volunteers).”
Providing unwavering support
Across the nation, volunteers at animal shelters have long been a backbone of the process, from in-shelter support to at-home foster care for disease-vulnerable puppies and kittens, to funding assistance.
For JCAS, the Friends group has been there as early as they can remember. Out of a $2 million cost for the new shelter finalized and opened in June 2012, Friends raised and donated $235,000, as previously reported by the News Tribune.
President Jackie Fischer, who has been part of Friends since its inception in 2006, said 100 percent of the funds Friends raises go to the shelter.
“If there’s anything that’s needed here that the city can’t pay for, that’s what we’re here for,” Fischer said.
They’ve purchased Kuranda beds, cat boxes, cat scratchers and even paid for calming music piped into the adoption areas where the animals stay. And even with all the help of Friends, the shelter still has daily material needs — empty cottage cheese or sour cream containers for frozen snacks, laundry soaps and bleach, peanut butter, cat litter, dryer sheets, cardboard flats. The list goes on. The shelter recently updated a shelter want list on their Facebook page in time for the gifting season.
But it’s the handful of daily volunteers who keep the shelter running as smoothly as possible. Currently, the shelter only has eight full-time staff members — one veterinarian, two veterinary technicians, four animal control officers and Blatter. The limited human resources have prompted Blatter to bring about a restructure of their volunteer program, to be kicked off in January, hoping to draw in more consistent volunteers on a planned schedule — the long-timers, Blatter said.
Volunteers who have frequented the shelter for quite some time know how just how much work there is to be done.
“You got to be able to roll up your sleeves and get in there,” Ponder said.
“It’s not always glamorous,” Blatter added.
The job can be emotional, too, and not in a warm-and-fuzzy way. Some people simply can’t stand to see the animals in cages.
“A lot of people will come in and say, ‘I just can’t go back there. I can’t see them in cages. I can’t,’” Fischer said. “And I felt that way too, at first. I’d come and walk dogs on the lunch hour, and I’d leave in tears. But you learn to get past that. You’re making a difference.”
“It just takes you a while to go full circle,” Ponder said. “At least they’re not out in the elements. … The adopter that was meant for them has not come yet. That’s the way I look at it.”
Improving life through enrichment
In many ways, the very presence of the volunteers makes the animals adoptable.
Enrichment and socialization may sound like mere buzz words, but for the animals at JCAS, their implementation keeps animals “happy and healthy,” Blatter said. These activities can be as simple as letting a dog roam the yard or giving a cat a new scratcher. Essentially, it’s anything to keep an animal’s mind occupied or that allows them to socialize and do “natural things” not in a cage.
“Shelter life is not easy for these animals. It’s far from ideal, even as good as we make it,” Blatter said. “They’re still in a cage, right? When they become bored, they can start to have behaviors. … This really great adoptable pet, as its listening to things that we just can’t control and its spending time here … they can develop behaviors and things that would make them less adoptable if you don’t give them something to do.”
The very nature of a shelter inhibits a dog’s natural instincts to investigate and socialize not just with humans but with other dogs, according to the nonprofit organization Pets for Patriots. The biggest challenge enrichment programs face is they can require significant training of staff and volunteers.
Volunteer Dr. Mar Doering, with All Paws Medical & Behavioral Center in Holts Summit, has hosted classes on necessary skills that help animals be successful, Blatter said.
But even with big goals for their enrichment program, to be expanded alongside the volunteer program, JCAS is facing one looming problem Blatter hopes to address — building shelter capacity as the program gains more regular volunteers.
Although animals cycle through the shelter and are adopted into families fairly quickly, Blatter knows JCAS can’t consistently take in animals without addressing their means of doing so. The shelter has a total of 162 enclosures, but Blatter stressed capability over capacity — it’s extremely unlikely those 162 enclosures will be filled at all times.
“Number of kennels is not capacity. Capacity is the number of animals we can actually take care of with the current staffing levels,” Blatter said. “If we take too many in, we’re not going to give them the quality of care that we absolutely need to give them.”
Forming bonds, gaining trust
For Ponder, spending three to four hours a day in the shelter gives her the ability to form lasting bonds and offer that quality care. It’s one of the reasons the dogs have come to recognize her voice and respond differently when she comes around — she’s gained their trust.
“A lot of the animals that are here, they’ve lost their trust in humans,” Ponder said. “They’ve either been abused or dumped or neglected — and I try not to be judgmental — but it takes them a while to trust again. It really does.”
With tears in her eyes, Ponder recounted a story of an adopted dog who got loose before his adopters could even get him in the house. Shelter staff ultimately decided to send Ponder to search for the dog, knowing he would recognize her voice. She was able to find him and return him to his new owners.
But a few days after his return on a Sunday, Ponder contacted the family, hoping to see how the dog was adjusting, and got bad news.
“And it breaks my heart. He got loose again Monday, and they didn’t bother to tell anybody. And to my knowledge, he’s never been found. I still pray for that dog,” Ponder said, choking back her tears. She still has a picture of him in her car. “It affects me because I love them, and I can feel they love me and that they appreciate the love.”
“It’s unconditional love,” Fischer added. “You can see it in their eyes that they appreciate everything that you’re doing. Just leaving here like that, with a smile on your face.”
She stopped, chuckling slightly as she realized she had teared up, and playfully blamed Ponder before continuing.
If she’s having a bad day, Fischer said she knows exactly where to spend her lunch hour.
“Puppy breath — puppy breath is my favorite thing,” Fischer said. Her voice gets quiet. “It’s such a good feeling. And you know that they need that, they need you. … It’s very rewarding. Extremely.”