If I’m a hero, you can be too.

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Last week I circulated a photo of a desperately sad looking dog behind bars at the Orange County Animal Shelter. I was pleading for someone to step in and rescue her from this notoriously overcrowded shelter where, as a non-puppy and a chihuahua (of which this area has far too many) her chances of being killed for space were high. She had been stuck there for a month. Between Facebook and Instagram, thousands of people were rooting for her, hoping she would find a rescuer. I was hopeful. Days went by. I checked in constantly to see if she’d found a home, and was repeatedly disappointed to know she was still at risk. Finally, thanks to the feeling of empowerment that sometimes comes after a few glasses of wine, I decided I would have to step in and go get her (*the next day – don’t drink and drive!). The plan was to foster her until I could find her a forever home…that said, she seems to be settling in quite nicely 😉

As soon as I posted that I was heading up to get her, praise came pouring in through social media. “You’re an amazing, inspiring woman!”…”There need to be more people like you on this planet.”…”You are an angel.” While I am beyond grateful to have such compassionate, enthusiastic, emotive followers (seriously, you guys make my life so much better), I feel the need to point something out. Yes, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I did a good thing. I saved a life. Because Maya was rescued from the shelter, another dog will be able to stay in her former kennel while waiting for a home. That said, there are millions of people making this same choice every year, each of them as deserving of praise and appreciation! I am no more special than they are. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these people, which is why anywhere from 3-10 million pets (statistics vary widely, but it’s safe to say the number is devastatingly huge) die annually in shelters.

My point in writing this post is to explain how every single person can be part of the solution that helps this overpopulation crisis. All the appreciation and praise in the world (which, I’ll reiterate, I truly do appreciate!) won’t fix it. Rather than sitting back and absorbing all the love, I feel it’s important for me to harness all this energy coming in to empower YOU to figure out how YOU can make a difference. Because you can. You may not have room or time for an animal right now. You may be too young to make the executive decision in your home. You may not be able to afford adoption fees & food. That’s fine; there are so many ways to help! Below is a list of actions that will make a difference. I beg and plead you to do at least one of these things!

Adopt your next companion animal. Duh, this is the most obvious. But it never hurts to leave a reminder. Visit your local shelters and rescue groups. You can start your search through www.petfinder.com or www.shelterme.com.

Foster for an independent rescue group. Countless lives are saved every year thanks to foster homes. There are more than 10,000 rescue groups in this country, most (if not all) of which require support from fosters. Each organization has their own policies, but if you’re unfamiliar, this is generally how it works. You contact a local organization (find one through the Pet Finder database) to let them know you’re willing to foster. They will ask you about your living situation, your experience with animals, other pets in the home, availability, etc. If approved, they will contact you when they need to pull an animal from a shelter. Typically they are pulling animals who are likely to be euthanized by shelter staff due to space or disinterest. They will pay the shelter’s adoption fees and will usually supply food & supplies. You just have to give the animal a temporary home and lots of love until a forever home is found. You may be responsible for bringing the animal to weekly/monthly adoption events (usually held at pet supply stores or other populated areas), but again, that will depend on the group’s policies. Once the animal has found his/her permanent guardian, you’re free! You can do it once, twice, or all the time. This is a perfect option for someone who wants to help but for whatever reason can’t commit to caring for an animal for the rest of his/her life.

Volunteer at a shelter or with a rescue group. Shelters needs volunteers to walk, play with, and clean up after animals. Contrary to what we all wish, many shelters are not entirely staffed by animal lovers. Some are, but it’s hardly a requirement for the job. In some places, the only love and affection given to shelter animals comes from volunteers. Interaction with volunteers is crucial to helping these animals get adopted. Who do you think will be more appealing to the family that comes to the shelter looking for a new companion, the dog who’s been walked and played with every day for a month or the dog who’s been left alone, confused, and staring at strangers through bars for a month? City shelters should have clear links to volunteer applications/info on their websites.

Most rescue groups need volunteers to help out at adoption or outreach events. Sometimes this means just sitting in a pen petting and holding adorable dogs while potential adopters come say hello. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon! You may also be able to assist an organization with tasks pertaining to your skill set. Are you a web or graphic designer? Maybe their website or logo needs updating. Are you a musician or videographer? They could probably use help creating fundraising videos. Volunteer needs will vary greatly between groups, so I encourage you to contact a few to find out where your services could be best used.

Pledge for rescues. This is a relatively new (since social media has really taken off) way to contribute. On Facebook especially, there are a LOT of people who spend time photographing and documenting animals in need of rescue. As these photos are shared, people can leave pledge comments on the thread. This will look something like, “I pledge $10 to an approved rescue.” If enough pledges are collected to cover or contribute significantly to the adoption fees, a rescue group can then go get the animal from the shelter with the assumption that everyone who commented will then send in their pledged donation. Of course, I’m sure there are people who leave those comments and don’t honor their pledges, but enough people are trustworthy that this seems to be a pretty effective process. Once the animal has been safely taken out of the shelter, a volunteer or administrator for the rescue group will come back to the original post, leave photo evidence that they rescued the animal, and then provide a website or PayPal account through which you can submit your donation. They may also send you a private message. Having a successful rescue group is very expensive; people who run these organizations have to cover the initial shelter fees as well as medical care, food, and toys for the duration that the animal is with them. Pledges allow them to save far more lives than they would otherwise be able to.

Donate. Again, this seems obvious, but it may be a reminder. Find an organization you trust and want to support. Ask friends for recommendations. Petfinder.com is a great place to begin this search. Your contribution, regardless of the amount, could mean the difference between life and death for a shelter pet.

Use Amazon Smile. This is a pretty specific but extremely easy option. Through Amazon Smile, .5% of the money you spend on Amazon purchases will be donated to a non-profit of your choice. You can choose from nearly one million non-profits! .5% may not seem like a lot, but when you think about the billions of dollars spent through Amazon every year, the impact can be pretty substantial. Sign up through http://smile.amazon.com.

Transport. Social media has done great things for animal rescue. A side effect of this influx of information and cross posting is that people often fall in cyber-love with animals stuck in shelters thousands of miles from them. Fortunately, there are some excellent volunteers out there working to unite adopters with the pet of their dreams. If you have an operational vehicle and don’t mind road trips, this could be the best way for you to help out! Check out Rescue Road Trips, Kindred Hearts, A New Leash on Life, and Mobile Mutts Rescue Transports.

Fundraise. This is especially helpful if you’re still in school. Food drives, bake sales, car washes, garage sales, etc. can all be used to bring in resources for shelters and rescue groups. Offer to babysit, mow lawns, walk dogs, tutor other students, whatever you can think of, in exchange for donations. Brainstorm with friends. The options are endless!

Share & Network. This applies to both photos of animals in need of rescue as well as to information about pet overpopulation.  I spend time with so many people who adopt and rescue animals that I start assuming everyone understands this issue, but I’m wrong. If you follow rescue groups on Facebook, you’ll definitely see posts in need of sharing. You never know, you may have a cousin who’s been thinking of buying a puppy from a breeder but will instead come across the photo of a shelter dog you shared and decide to save a life. Your old boss may be worried about her dog being home alone all day and decide to adopt a friend. People need to see these faces and hear these stories if we’re going to expect them to do something about it. Sharing takes no money and no time! Your voice is vital to raising awareness.

Help Friends & Family Adopt. As you learn more, you’ll quickly acquire a level of expertise that could be helpful to potential adopters in your life. Many people are intimidated by the shelter/rescue world, so they avoid it by going to a breeder (thus giving money to have MORE animals brought into this already overpopulated country). Get to know the names and locations of your local shelter and rescue groups. Familiarize yourself with online resources like www.petfinder.com and www.shelterme.com. The easier you make it for them, the more likely they are to listen.

Stay Informed. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to inspire change. Also, the more you’ll feel inspired to create change. There are still shelters in this country that use gas chambers for “euthanasia”. There are cities where specific breeds of dogs are outlawed. There are approximately 15,000 American puppy mills in operation today. These are important things to know if we want to be effective advocates. Watch relevant documentaries and TV shows. I recommend Shelter Me as a good place to start!

Spay & Neuter. Preventing your pets from breeding is crucial to ending this cycle of shelter deaths. I know it sounds fun to watch your best furry friend raise a litter of kittens or puppies, but the repercussions are not worth it. Please encourage friends and family members to spay & neuter their animals as well. Some vets may quote you a high price, but it’s nothing compared to the price of caring for a litter of newborns! There are also low or no cost spay/neuter clinics popping up all over the country. Google will be your best tool for locating that type of service.

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and suggestions! Pet overpopulation is a heartbreaking issue, but it’s something I truly believe can be dealt with in our lifetimes. We just have to step up, speak out, and give what we can.

If you have more ideas, please feel more than free to leave them in the comments section!

If I’m a hero, you can be too.