A Writing Lesson from the Animal Shelter
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
In writing programs, professors stress “showing, not telling.” For example, instead of saying “It’s hot outside,” mention sweaty people, melting ice cubes, maybe steam rising from the pavement, and readers will figure out that it’s hot. I had never considered applying that concept to a training course, but I saw a real-life example of it this weekend when I attended an orientation session at the West LA Animal Shelter.
Twenty minutes into the 2.5 hour long affair, the instructor and her assistant had barely addressed the class and instead were conferring with each other regarding orientation-related paperwork. Having learned my lesson, in general, regarding the futility of being prepared for such events, I waited to read the handbook until after I’d arrived at the training. So I didn’t get annoyed–I had something to do–but I noticed nonetheless.
When she was ready to begin, the instructor brought in a crate of kittens and passed them out to participants. “We’re here because we love animals, right?” she said. “Who wants to hold a kitten? We don’t have enough to go around, so you’ll need to share.” I’m allergic to cats, so didn’t want to share. But for the next hour, kittens dotted the classroom landscape, their tiny mews echoing against the concrete walls. Their presence was purely ancillary to the instruction; people really were holding kittens just to hold kittens.
The instructor seemed to be a genuinely nice woman, and despite the disorganization that ensued over the next two hours, I left knowing more than when I had arrived. Some things I was told–this particular shelter has about 90% pit bulls and chihuahuas, everyone starts out cleaning kennels and doing laundry, the shelter has rabbits and reptiles in addition to cats and dogs, and teaching a dog to look up at people’s faces increases its chances of adoption. But my biggest lesson could never have been told as effectively as it was demonstrated: This place needs help.
There were nearly-constant interjections as the instructor, let’s call her Christine, oriented us to the shelter. Within the first ten minutes, a seasoned volunteer, let’s call her Bobby, entered the training room to check with Christine on an unrelated matter. Within 15 minutes, she was back again and did the same thing. Within 20 minutes, Bobby returned, this time walking softly, standing about four feet away from the instructor, calling in a drawn-out forced whisper “Christiiiine… Christiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine.” I laughed, really hard, on the inside. Bobby had another question, completely unrelated to the training, and I believe also unrelated to the previous urgent matter.
Intersperse with that a volunteer who successively paraded pit bulls into the room, then sat in a chair in front of the class for 5-10 minutes before leaving. Sometimes the dogs were used as educational tools–don’t pat a dog on the head like this, don’t put your face close to theirs like this, etc. A couple of the dogs were brought in because they were trying to get a hyper (but not too hyper) one to demonstrate a dog jumping up on someone, presumably so they could say “See? Don’t let a big dog do this. People don’t like it.” I’m all for demos. But despite bringing four pit bulls in, none of them jumped up. So instead it was just dog after dog, walking through the class, sitting up front for awhile, then leaving.
Mix that with Christine periodically mentioning how overworked she is. I was here until 11 last night… I usually work through lunch… I’m so disorganized because I don’t have time to enter things in the computer.
I’m not slamming her. My experience thus far seemed to support her statements.
The capstone? During the last ten minutes of our class, Christine was wrapping things up when BAM! In walks seasoned volunteer #2 with a bombshell: “The South LA shelter is on their way over with 20 dogs.”
“Twenty dogs?!” Christine exclaimed. “Where are we going to put them?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But they’re coming….”
“Well they’re probably mostly cats,” she told herself, aloud. “I guess they wouldn’t have said we could take ’em if we didn’t have room…. They’re probably mostly small dogs,” she continued, as if her brain had decided to accept they were dogs since there must be room.
With so many interruptions in less than three hours, it’s hard to imagine what a normal day must be like for that woman, between the harried pace and cacophony of bored, barking dogs. I literally saw a dog climbing the wall. I don’t know if I could handle it day in and day out. But I’m glad someone can.