I signed up for the Monday afternoon session, which turned out to be pretty sparse with only five attendees. But I enjoyed our more-intimate orientation because it I got to learn more about the other volunteers, and our time together helped me realize something about myself as well.
As our volunteer coordinator began her PowerPoint presentation, she clicked through to the second slide entitled "About Me." It featured two photos of a couple of adorable bulldogs and one pretty gray-and-white cat - her pets. She was using their photos as a family portrait and as a tacit way of illustrating her own motivations behind her work at ACS.
Because we were long on time and short on attendees, our presenter followed-up her discussion of her pet family by asking us about ours. An older gentleman sitting in the front row, said he had two cats named Grendel, after the Beowolf character, and Jack. The second lady, sitting behind me, mentioned her feisty Norwich terrier who loves her but not other Norwich terriers. Then the volunteer coordinator held out her palms towards me and asked curiously, "How 'bout you? Do you have any pets?"
"Yes, I do." I smiled, happy for any excuse to talk about my fur baby in front of a crowd, even a small one. "I have a dog, Teddy. He's a Newfoundland."
She cocked her head to the side and grinned, "Aw, what a perfect name for a Newfoundland!"
"Thank you, yes, he does look like a big black bear."
I looked down and reflected on the enthusiasm with which the two previous speakers had talked about their pets, and a most significant realization came to my mind and out of my mouth: "You know, it's funny. I guess I've kind of done a 180 in the past two years since I got Teddy. I used to not care much about animals at all."
It's true. Growing up, I never considered myself an animal lover. In college - heck, even in elementary school - if a visitor ever brought a dog to campus or, surprise of surprises, into the classroom, I watched from a distance as my classmates cooed over the furry novelty.
I thought dogs made for nervous doorbell-rings and awkward moments entering a friend's house. "Off! Off! No jump!" Those were the words that always seemed to greet me at the house of a faithful dog owner. Of course, I would cover up my discomfort with learned politeness. "Oh don't worry about him. He's fine!" I'd lie, as I felt the freshly trimmed nails of my four-legged doorman scratch my legs and feet.
Cats were cooler, but also more indifferent to affection. The closest I ever came to feeling love for an animal was for my family's cat, Snowflake. Even today, I brag about his awesomeness, especially to defend the typical cat-shaming by dog lovers. Sure, he sometimes dragged dead birds to our front porch welcoming the mailman with a murder scene, and he hardly ever slept in my bed with me. Even when he did cuddle with me, I'd have to quickly bury myself in layers of blankets to protect my supple skin from his 15-minute-long, claw-wielding, blanket kneading session that would precede EVERY nap he took with me. BUT when I babysat in the neighborhood during junior high, Snowflake walked me to each house, waited for me on the windowsill, and walked me back. Great cat. Case closed.
But I didn't love Snowflake like I love Teddy today, which has nothing to do with the merits of Snowflake v. Teddy or cats v. dogs. No, I attribute my pet-indifference to my frustration with the dogs living in my house growing up. Those little terriers didn't always like each other, they peed on the kitchen floor with alarming regularity, and they'd snatch dropped food with the ferociousness of piranhas. My parents loved those dogs. But I only love them for the funny family stories they brought about, like the time(s) we shouted at my toddler cousin "DON'T PICK IT UP!" after he dropped his goldfish crackers off the kitchen table.
So I grew up never really understanding why everyone loved their dogs so much.
Then I got Teddy, and everything changed. The first few weeks of puppyhood were a bit stressful: whining in his crate, peeing on the carpet, and chewing the ethernet cord (true story). Is he eating enough? Why isn't he eating? What did his poo look like? Did we schedule his Distemper vaccine yet?
But through all of those initial little concerns, I was forgetting the bigger picture: that I was caring for this dog. I was providing for him because I wanted him to be a part of our family.
And then something magical happened: a few weeks after we brought puppy Teddy home from Indiana, I went to the bathroom (that's not the magical part). I walked down the hallway, turned into our bedroom and then into our bathroom. As I sat down to do my business, I turned around to find that Teddy had followed me all the way in there. I think that's the moment that I really started to love my dog, most selfishly, because I knew how much he was starting to love me.
A few months later I became a vegetarian. Now I'm coming up on my 1-year anniversary as a vegan. I get email newsletters from West Loop Dog Meetup and vegan chef, Chloe Coscarelli. On Facebook I follow Farm Sanctuary, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, Heartland Farm Animal Sanctuary, Humane Society of the United States Farm Animal Protection League, Dogs Are Family, and the Anti-Cruelty Society of course. I've discovered that I care deeply for the welfare of dogs, cats, and all animals.
"You know, it's funny. I guess I've kind of done a 180 in the past two years since I got Teddy. I used to not care much about animals at all," I said to the volunteer coordinator. "But," I tapped my palm on my heart, "Now I love my dog so much I don't know what I'd do without him. He is love incarnate."
She smiled at me. "That's so interesting. You see, most people see animal shelter volunteers and assume that we care for animals because of some sort of deep personal calling that we've had our whole lives. But you'll be able to relate so well to prospective adopters and their anxieties. You have such a wonderful story to share."
I wish my story upon everyone. My second orientation session is in two weeks.