A day in the life of an animal shelter worker is a study in contrasts. Some days, everything is humming along nicely, pets are getting adopted, and no neglect cases are logged. Other days, it is an uphill battle that takes everyone’s best efforts. For the staff at the Humane Society of Vero Beach & Indian River County, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love my job,” exclaims Community Support Coordinator Kristen Johnson, who made the transition from volunteer to employee. “I was already invested as a volunteer, but now it is my whole purpose.” Johnson is front-facing at the admissions desk, fielding phone calls from worried pet owners who have lost their best friends. “We return dogs to owners almost daily, sometimes several in a day.”
Some of her calls deal with owners concerned they can’t pay for their pets’ essential medical needs, or even just pay for food. The drastic increase in housing costs is forcing many renters to give up leases they have had for years. “If they need help with getting food and medical care for the pet, we can make that happen, and often that will keep the pet in the home,” Johnson says. “If the problem is behavioral, we provide advice and referrals. Sometimes it’s an easy fix, like adding a litter box or crate-training a dog.”
Staff in all departments are striving for happy endings. “A family brought an older cat in that was very sick,” Johnson recalls. “They thought they were saying goodbye. They didn’t want her to suffer anymore.” The Humane Society’s medical team discovered a treatable condition and was able to bring her back to health. “When we called the family, they were shocked and overjoyed to get their pet back. Everybody was crying.”
Animal Control is a key partner in identifying situations that, in the past, would have resulted in the pet being confiscated and the owner getting citations. “We had a case recently where the woman’s home had fallen into disrepair due to her health problems,” says Johnson. “The city was considering condemning her home. She loved her dogs and was most worried about what would happen to them.” The Humane Society cared for her pets temporarily, and volunteers and staff rolled up their sleeves to get the house cleaned up and the trash cleared away so she and her dogs could occupy it safely again. “We can’t just help the pets. We need to help the people, too.”
In her role as community support specialist, LaNiyah Miller also has direct interface with pet owners, driving into Gifford, Fellsmere, and parts of Vero Beach to deliver pet food and talk with owners about their needs. “People want to take responsibility but sometimes need help to do so,” she says.
Her day starts like Johnson’s: checking voicemails and making appointments for visits. “If I am using humane traps to bring in cats that need vaccinations and a medical check, I’ll come in at 7 a.m. to get the van and go check those traps. I love knowing that someone wants to take care of these cats and that we can facilitate that.” Miller will return to these neighborhoods in the late afternoon to reset traps. This is her favorite part of the job, but it comes with some sad encounters, too. “It is hard to see how people are just scraping by.”
When she pulls up in the Humane Society vehicle with its large dog-and-cat logo, people come out of their homes to see her. “I have a sweet lady that gets dog food from me and is so excited that she will always feed the dog right away when I arrive,” Miller laughs. “She thanks me all the way back to the van.” Medical needs are addressed, and many people will ask that their pets go in for neutering. “We can do that the same day and have the pet back by dinnertime.”
Recently, Miller went to a home with an Animal Control officer to investigate a neglect complaint. Three small dogs rushed out from the garage, barking for all they were worth. The dogs looked matted and unkempt, but when the owner came out of the house, it was clear he was in worse shape. “He is a veteran whose wife had died a few months earlier, and things deteriorated for him quickly,” she recalls.
Instead of giving a citation and a stern lecture, the pair brought the dogs to the Humane Society for baths, and the shelter arranged to have the man’s house flea bombed as well. The Animal Control officer connected the man with veterans’ services for his own well-being, and soon he was back in his home with his pets cleaned up, fed, and cared for.
Dogs, cats, bunnies, and birds all need daily care that goes far beyond just feeding and cleaning. As the animal care manager, Grace Mignone’s first task of the day is taking a good look around to make sure there are no pressing issues before getting all the dogs out for a walk. “We walk the house-trained dogs first, because they will wait to go outside,” she says.
Runs are cleaned and the dogs that need it are cleaned up before breakfast around 9 a.m. Then there are sink-loads of dishes to do. “Don’t get me started on laundry,” Mignone laughs, estimating that 8 to 12 loads are cycled through every day. In the cat areas, litter is changed and toys rotated. “A lot of the cats like to play with us while this is happening.”
The importance of enrichment for all the animals cannot be overstated. “Their mental health is essential to keeping them as content as possible during their stay,” Mignone declares. “We keep a log of this to see who has gotten what so we don’t repeat.” Puzzle feeders of all sizes and shapes are distributed so the dog or cat has to tease out the goodies.
Mignone gets creative when providing enrichment beyond treat and food puzzles. “Dogs love the scent work. We’ll put a bunch of boxes in a room, but only one has hot-dog pieces in it,” she explains. “It is super cute to see how diligent they are and proud when they figure it out.” Hot days call for some cooling off. “Outside, we’ll instigate water play with a hose or our plastic pools out in front. We also have a splash pad. Some dogs love to chase bubbles. We are always exploring different approaches to keep it fresh.”
Right before lunch, Mignone likes to work with the dogs that could use some manners. “The smallest thing, like a polite sit and stay can get them adopted.” Meanwhile, volunteers are pitching in with more walks, crate-training, and manners work. Occasionally, a dog will resist all this attention and retreat into a shell. “Herbert comes to mind,” Mignone says. “Animal Control had a tough time catching him, and when he came here, he didn’t want anything to do with us.” Mignone and volunteers tried different approaches but soon found a foster home for the wayward hound mix. “Herbert turned out to be very dog-social, so he thrived around his pals in foster care.”
These three women are often asked how they can do this demanding work. Their response is “How can we not?” “Thank God we are here,” says Kristen Johnson as she pets a Lab mix still wobbly from spay surgery. “Helping the animals is worth it. There are miracles happening every day.”