One of the question we get asked the most by people looking to become volunteers is “Why does the volunteer application form ask for your Social Security number?” The answer to the question is rather simple, but not always obvious. When you volunteer at the county animal control shelter you become what is known as a VIPS (Volunteer in Police Service) — an Anne Arundel County Police Department volunteer – because AACAC is an agency of that department. Shelter volunteers undergo the same background check as other police volunteers, and receive an official identification card that grants access to the Animal Control building during some nonpublic hours. The background check is one reason AACAC asks its volunteers to commit to 16 hours a month and does not take short-term volunteers or anyone under 18. It’s also part of the reason why it can take about two months to become a volunteer.
The first time I ever walked into the Anne Arundel County Animal Control shelter in Millersville, it was to apply to become a volunteer – if I liked what I saw. Trouble is, I had no clue just what I was looking for; I’d never volunteered at a shelter before. So I stuck my head into the cat room and scurried through the noisy dog kennel area. I didn’t see anything that curled my toes, so I went to the front desk to ask just what I needed to do to volunteer. I figured I’d be given a one-page form to fill out and told to report to duty in a couple of days.
As I flipped through the five-page (!) application, my eyes fell on questions asking for my medical insurance, whether I’d ever been charged with a crime and – most curiously, my Social Security number. I looked again at the top of the first page; surely, I thought, I’d mistakenly been handed an application for a “real” job, and a pretty important one at that. I mean, I was just going to be petting the nice dogs and cats, right? Why was I being asked if I objected to a background investigation? To fingerprinting? To my picture being on file?
Once you have been approved to be a volunteer you will go through the orientation session. For many this is a real eye-opener. During the orientation you are given a great deal of information about what you need to be an effective and helpful volunteer. Don’t worry; you don’t have to instantly commit all of this information to memory, and you’ll be given a comprehensive volunteer manual. You will sign some forms and waivers and go through a serious discussion about such things as how to avoid being bitten or scratched (and what to do if you are) that underscores not only the possible risks, but also the shelter’s emphasis on public safety, including the safety of its volunteers. You also will tour the maze of hallways and rooms in the back of the shelter. You may see some fairly sobering scenes, such as nervous animals that just arrived at the shelter, or ill animals in isolation.
By the end of the evening, your head will likely be swimming. Some do drop out of the volunteer program at this point, and that’s okay; it’s not for everyone…and remember: There are so many ways that you can provide support to these wonderful animals. Volunteering is only one of them (see “Other Ways to Donate” on our “Get Involved” page). You also can become a foster for the shelter without becoming a volunteer. Fosters most frequently care for underage kittens in their homes, but also sometimes care for older animals with special needs that would benefit from a quiet home.
Those who persevere find that the going quickly becomes easier and more pleasurable, in large part because new volunteers are paired with more experienced ones. A novice dog walker, for instance, will be trained by someone familiar with all the steps involved in safely leashing and taking a dog from its cage to the outside play areas and back. While you’re given ample opportunity during the application and orientation process to say what you’re most interested in doing, you may, like many of us, not really know the answer to that until you’ve volunteered for a while, or your duties may shift as you gain more expertise. It’s easy to be humbled by how little you know, how wrong many of your presumptions were, and how difficult it actually is to make some decisions that look easy from the outside looking in. If you volunteer at AACAC, you will do real, meaningful work that truly makes a difference — and you’ll also get quite an education.
Oh and by the way – one of the best very parts of all? You really DO get to pet lots and lots of dogs and cats!