Volunteers at animal shelters are very special people. They spend countless hours of their spare time caring for abandoned and unwanted pets, often exposed to the horror of interacting with animals that have been severely abused by the human hand. My City Magazine talked with volunteers at the Humane Society of Genesee County and Adopt-A-Pet in Fenton, and learned that they do it out of deep, absolute and unconditional love for animals of every shape and size.
Randy Benyo has volunteered at the Humane Society of Genesee County for 13 years. After he retired, he decided it was time to “give back to society.” You can find him at HSGC every Saturday, where his mission is to find a home for the oldest animal at the shelter. And there is no questioning his love of animals. At his Davisburg home, he and his wife, Nancy, pamper five dogs and eight cats – and he says they all get along. “I’ve loved animals since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” Randy smiles, “and Nancy is the cat lady.” If that weren’t enough, Randy has cared for around 30 feral cats over the years. He has them neutered and provides them with food and an outdoor shelter. But his pride and joy are his two therapy dogs: Mooch – a Newfoundland – and a Basset Hound named Freckles.
Of the two, Freckles is the more energetic, while Mooch’s demeanor is more laid-back. The Newfoundland breed has often been described as a “gentle giant,” known for loyalty and a docile nature. Mooch is massive in size, weighing 138 pounds. He has beautiful, expressive brown eyes, and when given the chance, will give you a great big kiss. He was surrendered to the Humane Society by his previous owner a couple of years ago. The woman at HSGC who processed Mooch that day said to Randy, “I have to show you this.” Randy recalls that first encounter: “He looked at me, I looked at him, and I took him home. He looked like he hadn’t had a bath in years, but I knew immediately that he was something special.” Mooch is now in tip-top shape and beautifully groomed. “I’d give up a meal to feed my dogs,” Randy admits.
“Once you’ve volunteered at an animal shelter, you look at the world differently.”
Every week, Randy, Freckles and Mooch visit two nursing homes to provide therapy to residents. “Dogs are so therapeutic,” he says, “and the people there really love the Mooch!” The trio also visits two elementary schools, Davisburg Elementary and Rose Pioneer Elementary, where they provide therapy to students with special needs. The children lie down on the floor next to the dogs and read to them. Randy teaches the elementary students about dog safety and humane education.
What does Randy like best about being a volunteer? “Meeting new people and working with the staff at the Humane Society,” he says. “The staff and the other volunteers are amazing. It makes me feel good – that I’m making a difference. The rewards are great. When I see kids interact with the animals and smile – that’s my paycheck.”
Adopt-A-Pet in Fenton is another facility that finds loving families for homeless dogs and cats. Lisa Walker has volunteered there for five years and was recently named Volunteer of the Year. She’s loved animals since she was very young, and started by bringing home squirrels, toads, and turtles. After graduating from high school, Lisa was unable to work due to some health issues, but her grandmother suggested she consider volunteering at Adopt-A-Pet. “I never left,” Lisa says with a laugh. Still an avid animal lover, Lisa has seven cats and one dog, and she fosters surrendered kittens at her home. As a volunteer, she helps out with “everything and anything.” She answers the phone, gives tours, helps with adoptions, and cleans litter boxes, among other things. What she most enjoys is photographing the animals and attending Adopt-A-Pet events. “I love spreading the word about this place and helping families find pets,” she says.
Lisa is very dedicated; she volunteers at least six days a week and says the experience has been very rewarding. “Once you’ve volunteered at an animal shelter, you look at the world differently.” She works mostly with cats, assisting the Cat Coordinator in the Cat Building. What she doesn’t enjoy is seeing the poor condition of some animals that are brought to the shelter. It is also difficult for her when a beloved animal has to be surrendered for reasons the owner can’t control. “You cry with them or you want to cry for them, because they just walk out,” Lisa says. “It’s so sad.”
Rambler, a kitten Lisa is currently fostering, was brought to the shelter on a cold December day, half frozen, with a prolapsed eye; but he is doing much better now. “He sits on my shoulder while I make dinner,” she says. “He is not a normal cat. I know I’ll cry when he is adopted.” According to Lisa, the shelter hit an adoption record last year, finding homes for 1,114 animals. And it was a very good year for kittens. “I was super excited!” Lisa exclaims. “A lot of the kittens went out in pairs.”
“The staff and the other volunteers are amazing. It makes me feel good – that I’m making a difference. The rewards are great.”
The highlight for Lisa was when she was awarded the Jack Batson Memorial Volunteer of the Year award in February during a fundraiser where she was taking photographs. “When they called my name, I just stood there, and I cried. I felt extremely honored.” Being a volunteer has been the best experience she’s ever had. “Adopt-A-Pet has given me confidence.”
Carol Madden has volunteered at Adopt-A-Pet for over a year now, and previously at the Michigan Animal Rescue for 15 years. She has always loved animals and now volunteers about 15 hours a week. Her duties include mentoring new volunteers, cleaning the Cat Building, and walking dogs. “I read kids’ books to dogs that are stressed,” says Carol, “or just sit with them so they won’t be so scared.” She assists with adoptions on Sundays from 1-4pm and also helps out at off-site events. “This is such a great shelter,” says Carol. “Every person here is so compassionate and will do everything they can to save a dog or cat.”
Carol describes Adopt-A-Pet as “unique,” because only some of the animals are caged and many are allowed to wander the premises. The property has two big yards where dogs can play, an agility course, as well as a walking trail in the woods behind the facility. “The staff and the volunteers here go above and beyond,” Carol says. “Everyone is so giving, and the atmosphere is great.” Many of the animals, especially the dogs, are taken in by one of Adopt-A-Pet’s 45 foster families. They try to place as many as they can in foster care, because it makes the adjustment to the adoptive home much easier.”
For Carol, the best thing about volunteering is seeing animals go to forever homes. “It’s so rewarding!” she exclaims. “It fills me up every day.”
Photography by Eric Dutro