NORMAN — The cinderblock gray walls and seemingly endless rows of cages are accompanied by the foulest of smells, impossible to ignore.
At the first sign of a human presence, the cages come alive. Anxious, fear-ridden and agitated barks erupt from inside a place supporting the abandoned, abused and lost of Norman.
Marley Dablo walks down the line of cages, plastic bag in hand. She counts how many of the dogs have used the bathroom in their crates and then tactically steps in to clean up the mess. With some of the dogs, she tries to divert their attention elsewhere, afraid they might try to escape when she opens the cage. Others cower in the back of the cage, stricken with fear, as Dablo carefully scoops up the litter.
She coos softly, the dogs replying with whimpers and whines.
“You can see it in their eyes,” Dablo said. “Some just simply need a loving human touch to calm them down, make them happy.”
Dablo, a senior at the University of Oklahoma, has been an active volunteer at the Norman Animal Welfare Shelter since August, realizing she wanted to do something positive for Norman in some way before she left for good in May. Dablo attended a training session with a representative from a new organization, Friends of the Animals in Norman, also known as FAN, to learn the ins and outs of volunteering at the public pound.
It is hard to see at first, the sadness of such a sight distracting from the heroic efforts made by the staff and volunteers at the shelter, but the cages of lonely faces are being given a second chance. These efforts to save and find homes for the dogs and cats of Norman go at many times unrewarded, since every time one animal has found a home, it seems another is being put down. The volunteers call this “death row.”
Dablo and other student volunteers are taught that a red sticker above a cage is the most welcoming sight because it means that animal is in the process of being adopted. Yellow stickers mean they are available for adoption hold, green means available for adoption and purple means they are scheduled to have surgery. The more red and yellow she sees, the smaller the pit in her stomach, Dablo said.
FAN has become the Norman Animal Welfare Center’s advocate, gaining a voice through its Facebook page that Dablo and other volunteers share on their own pages as well. FAN is a charitable nonprofit volunteer organization that supports the shelter by managing and seeking volunteers, encouraging responsible pet ownership and working with the center to increase the number of adoptions.
Dablo says she heard of the volunteer program by coming across the FAN Facebook page on her newsfeed. Each post is constructed to tug at the heartstrings, with pictures of helpless and sweet faces of the dogs and cats at the shelter.
The most powerful ones always leave off with “please help, he is running out of time,” telling all that animal is headed to death row. The animals can only be given a certain amount of time before they are put down in order to make room for the constant flow of others.
Two days later, Dablo stops in front of a cage of a new resident at the shelter. A fluffy border collie puppy is leaning up against the front of the cage, its desperation for affection captured in the puppy’s drooping eyes.
“It is so hard seeing puppies so young like this, stuck in here,” Dablo said. “I know they will get adopted the quickest, but you gotta think something like this never leaves a puppy. It is too traumatizing.”
Dablo spends the next hour outside in the enclosed play areas behind the center, where the dogs are taken to allow them to be dogs. They play, fetch and curiously wander. Dablo attempts to play fetch with the curious puppy, which is too busy attaching itself to Dablo’s leg to notice the tennis ball. The way the innocent puppy follows Dablo around in the play pen seems as if he thinks she is his mother. Dablo says she tries not to get attached; it is the only way you can keep coming back every day. But the look of adoration on her face as she watches the pup playfully tug at her the bottom of her yoga pants seems to tell a different story.
“How do you not just fall in love with the animals? You can’t, you would have to be heartless,” Dablo said. “I leave every time wanting to take every single one of these guys home with me.”
Dablo said she comes back every day because she knows that without her these animals would have one less person to give them love each day, and none of them can afford to have any less.
Dannan Payne, another OU senior who spends her afternoons volunteering, said she sees her job as a way to help build each animal’s personality in order for it to be adopted sooner.
“A dog who realizes they love people and playing and doing the things people want dogs to do is going to get adopted much faster than one who is still fearful or uncertain of how to act around humans,” Payne said. “Every time I come in, I always go for the ones that are the fearful and confused. I try to show them humans can be good, too.”
The volunteers at the Norman Animal Welfare Center help the center give something to the animals that no small staff can achieve on its own. However, the center takes care of the upkeep of the animals, which volunteers cannot do by themselves. All animals are spayed or neutered prior to adoption. The adoption fee is $60 and includes vaccinations, de-worming, heartworm and lyme disease and ehrlichia testing. FAN also organizes adoption events, typically held on Saturdays and special offers in order to help increase the number of adoptions.
“If you’re not interested in adopting, the best way a person can help is volunteering even if it is just an hour once a week,” said Karlee Bell, an OU senior and volunteer. “These animals need human interaction or they can become aggressive which prevents them from finding a home.”
Volunteers like Dablo, Payne and Bell are just students finishing their last leg of college with a determination to make an impact. These students could spend their free time doing what typical college students do, but instead they choose to spend it in the dark hallows of the center, playing with cats with no tails, dogs that are battered and broken and the staff of the center, who give these animals a chance.
The following week, Dablo walks into the shelter, making way to her first pit stop of her routine. The border collie puppy she had dubbed Buster is no longer pushed up against the cage, begging to be let out. Instead, his cage is empty; the only trace of him is his half-empty water bowl.
Dablo points to the name plate that reads the puppy’s ID number and a sticker above the name plate. Specifically, a red sticker. A tear of relief escapes Dablo and she brushes it away quickly.
“I’ll miss that little guy, but I couldn’t be happier he now has a home,” Dablo said. “I give it an hour before that cage fills up again and I’ll be here waiting.”
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