Animals are Angels of Comfort – How volunteering at an animal shelter saved me

by Zachariah Atteberry
(Hannibal, Missouri)

I work at the Northeast Missouri Humane Society here at Hannibal, Missouri. Despite having autism, I have volunteered there for two years. In the time I have spent there I have befriended countless feline, canine, and human friends. After graduating high school, I was offered a part time job. My job entails that I clean all the cat cages and dog cages, socialize animals, and help steer unwanted behavior in an effort to get more animals adopted. But my life hasn’t always been filled with happiness and success. Having lived with aspergers for eight years and having experienced abuse, I know the feeling of being alone and undermined in a world that seems to just spin on by. When I first voyaged out to be someone, anxiety and doubt shrouded my mind and I was completely clueless on what to do. Unless you are a paragon of confidence, the feeling ebbs at you like frost through leaf.

While a big part of elementary school impacted my life, middle and high school were probably the biggest stressors of all. On the first day of middle school my foster dad had just died and my mom was recovering from thyroid cancer. While I didn’t have a big attachment to my foster dad and I had been a victim of abuse, as well as many cats, it was such a hard hitter since he was changing over a new leaf prior to his death. We had to move multiple times due to a financial problem and foreclosure. Everyone was feeling the shock and it was a very sensitive time for me. At this point I did not fancy being socially active in middle school. I did not want any part of sports, class rooms, or discussion groups. Not only did students take part in embarrassing and tormenting me – teachers did as well. I was always picked on to give presentations, to stand up in front of the class, and answer questions on the chalk board.

I barely passed middle school with all D’s. Middle school did not improve, and as I made the transition to high school, I was scared. The alones clawed at me. I was forced to participate in socially stressful situations such as gym and give oral presentations in English. And even though I had a disorder, they said that if I didn’t do them I would still fail. I was verbally abused and disliked at by other students. My first year ended with attendance probation, a grade card full of Fs and a disappointed outlook on life. 10th grade was the year I dropped out – in the middle of the year. I did not see a light at the end of the dark tunnel, and there was no safety net to catch my fall.

The summer quickly crept up on me… I occupied my time by playing video games, chatting with friends, watching television. It was a teenager’s dream life. Half way through that summer year I found a new companion, and I named him Tiger – an F3 Bengal. It didn’t take long for the love affair to bloom. After spending a lot of time with Tiger and learning vitals about cat care and cat socialization, I dreamed about what it would be like to be a vet. This is where I came up with the idea of volunteering at the humane society. One week before school, my mom and Learning Opportunities really urged me to give school another try. They were trying to convince me that it was the only way to earn a good future. We talked about it, and deep into the conversation, my ambitions about working at the humane society popped up. The Learning Opportunities worker said it was a possibility if the high school agreed, and they did.

I returned to school only to expect the same abuse as last year. At the beginning of this year, I was pushed around and tormented like a rat in a labyrinth. People passed in me in lunch lines, made up stories about me and got me in trouble, and often referred to me as a mute. The school allowed me to volunteer at the humane society for two hours a day and I enjoyed socializing the cats, but in honesty, I was quite lazy and did not even have the initiative to learn how to clean cages. I was still bummed out about not having many friends and not having good grades like everyone else. Every scintilla of my confidence was breaking apart. I barely made it through 11thgrade, almost dropping out two times throughout the year.

In 12th grade, I requested that the school allow me to work at the North East Humane Society for four hours a day, instead of two. My request was accepted. When I had decided to volunteer four hours, I was very pessimistic about the outcomes and had premonitions of failure. Since I was working four hours instead of two, I would have more responsibilities and obligations. The animals were depending on me to clean their cages, to socialize them, and find the best way to get them adopted. Carrying all this responsibility would be a big step up from socializing the cats and just lobbying around.

I started volunteering four hours a day at the humane society and it really boosted my confidence. Since I was doing four hours, I got to clean about five to ten cat cages a day and the other part I usually spent socializing and grooming the cats. I really loved grooming the cats. I volunteered until the end of school, and also joined the HSUS club at my high school where I helped in various fundraisers. I met a lot of friends and people that shared my interest in animal welfare in the HSUS group, and together we made a dramatic impact in the lives of the animals. I ended up passing high school with all A’s and B’s and with an attendance of over 95% on my senior year. On the last day of school I walked out with my diploma in one hand and my Northeast Missouri Humane Society club scholarship in the other!

After school, I was employed as a part time worker on behalf of learning opportunities. Being employed as a worker involved a lot more than when I was a volunteer. Being a worker involved sanitizing dog and cat cages, cleaning floors and windows, and taking out the trash as well as a few other tasks. I was very ecstatic to get started. The first task that I learned was to clean the cat cages the professional way. I was pushed to know everything about cleaning them; from sanitizing the food and water bowls all the way to proper glass cleaning and moving the cats. When I first attempted to clean a cage by myself without a staff member helping me out, I messed up the windows and faltered on returning the cats to the right cages. After much trial and error, I finally got the trend down to a tee and was able to sanitize the cages fast and effectively. Cleaning twenty cages as opposed to ten was a big step up – and moving cats was always a learning experience. The next month when I learned to clean all the dog cages, I made quite a few mistakes while changing the food and water. On top of all that, I did not even know how to use a hose.

Given a bit of instruction, I was taught to sanitize the dog cages almost flawlessly. I copied all the tasks that I had learned and executed them all excellently, with only a few mistakes here and there. In the beginning I was having panic attacks from talking. Now I found myself volunteering and talking to almost everyone there. The welfare of animals helped me regain my confidence. Helping animals find new homes and helping the humane society was akin to being king of the world.

It is hard to fathom that some people claim that volunteering at the humane society is a severe punishment. To me, it is a gathering of animal lovers to help the unlucky ones. While some people do not like volunteering and would rather be shoveling coal, there is one common that we all share regardless; Even if our life is soaring off, or crumbling apart, we all want our lives to be better. Animals don’t ask for much; to be fed, watered and to just have a loving family. In return, animals offer all the reassurance we could ever ask for. One vital thing I have learned is to never judge a shelter animal by their roots. Animals have most likely on one occasion, faced abuse or abandonment and need a home just like any other animal. Donating to a humane society or volunteering helps an astronomical amount.

Success does not arrive in a parcel overnight; rather it comes from hard work and devotion. The time I was in school seemed tantamount to three lifetimes, though in reality, it is not nearly as bad. I encourage everyone to find their calling and source of happiness. I have learned to stand up for myself now, and not let people run me over. Animals have done more than enough to show me that love is real, and that they care. I was never taught the basic tasks that most children were taught when they were young and for that, I had to work harder at the humane society to learn them. Trial and error really do make perfect.

Working at the humane society with the help of Loqw and Vocational Rehabilitation gave me the confidence I needed to succeed. I discovered that I actually have skills and knowledge that can be helpful in a work environment.  The rewards that are reaped from securing a friendship with animals is special, and is one that intertwines more than humans can see with just their eyes. Do not think the smallest opportunity can’t make the difference – it can.

If you enjoyed this post, please visit Zach’s blog –

This is part one of a two part article. Prt 2 coming….soon.


Comments for
Animals are Angels of Comfort – How volunteering at an animal shelter saved me

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Jun 24, 2011 Very good !
by: Elisa

Unfortunately people are very cruel. My daughter dropped out of school at 16 because of being teased about her weight. In the 1970’s I was ridiculed about my weight (120 lb?!) and also because of severe acne. I also ended up in a few destructive relationships that almost pulled me under. I have away a dog I’d had for 7 years when I should have gotten rid of the man. It took years for me to get away from the toxic people in my life. My best friend from elementary school kept asking me where the real me went and until about a year ago I thought she was dead. My writing brought the real me back to life.

I’ve learned a few things over the years. The main thing to remember is you’re never going to please everyone. NOT GONNA HAPPEN. Just learn to please yourself and know you are doing the right thing. I think you are. You’ve learned the secret of animal love. That at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you look or feel, YOU are the most important person in your pets life.

Keep up the good work and keep writing. I’d suggest you get with Michael and try to get into Cat Writer’s Association as a professional writer. There are so many ways to promote yourself through them. And you have to promote yourself these days in anything you do if you plan on being successful.

Let me know if I can ever help you. You’re one of my best online friends.

Jun 22, 2011 Congratulations Zach!
by: Gail (Boston, USA)

You are indeed a very special individual, Zach. Animals instinctively know a good person when they come in contact with them. The fact that you go out of your way to interact with the most difficult guests at the humane society speaks volumes as to your character. You will go far in your life. Thank you for all that you do for these wonderful furkids. They appreciate it and respect you in kind. It’s a very magical interaction and you, sir, are a grand master.

Jun 22, 2011 Great writing, Zach!
by: Ruth (Monty’s Mom)

You are a good writer. I liked the image of self confidence being eroded like frost through a leaf. Great imagery!
I too have experienced comfort through cats. I worked at a nursing home as a young person and it was my dad’s idea to get me a cat to help me deal with the grief of losing elderly residents I cared about when the inevitable happened and they passed away. Today I still work in healthcare. Stress is now a bigger problem for me than grief, but having a kitty to come home to helps with that too!

I am so sorry you actually had teachers who were rude to you. I taught for eight years. I would hate it when teachers bad mouthed students in the faculty room– predicting who would end up an unwed mother and who would end up in prison and laughing about it. I quit working at one school because it was so bad.

People working in education (and healthcare as well) should never forget that the people they work with are human beings with hopes, dreams and feelings. A little empathy goes a long way. You are learning that in your work with animals. The more you learn to understand other’s pain and try to help the better the world becomes through your efforts. Keep up the good work!

Jun 22, 2011 A Friend
by: Lindy

Your story was awesome and I am so happy to see that it has helped you in being with the animals and all that you do. These dear little souls need us as much as we need them and they ask nothing in return except food and water and to let them know that we care. Your story made my day Zach.

Jun 22, 2011 Animals as a source of therapy.
by: Rudolph.A.furtado

Excellent and encouraging to other people who must have experienced sorrows in their lives. Its been scietifically proven that pets are a great source of healing to its human companions.Well done Zach for re-discovering your life.

Jun 22, 2011 Wonderful
by: Karan

You should be very proud of yourself for accomplishing such self growth at such a young age. Many people much older and not accomplished what you have.

You are very special and it is those that are so special that are targeted by others out of jealousy and envy because they want to be like that person. You are far above most.

I feel you will go far. Your heart is big and now stronger because you realized you are special. Keep your faith. Animals have many lessons for us humans, the dummies we are.

Jun 22, 2011 Hi Zach
by: Michael

Great article of hope and inspiration. Thanks for the contribution.

I am so glad that you managed to rebuild your life with the help of companion animals.

You have talent. Keep going and show those horrible people who lowered your self esteem and destroyed your hope that you are better than them – you are.

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