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'You have to have a bigger voice for them.' Volunteers at Woods Humane Society give back in many ways

Posted at 6:30 PM, Sep 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-30 15:51:44-04

There are only so many hours in a day, and for the hundreds of volunteers that walk through the doors at Woods Humane Society in San Luis Obispo, spending time with cats and dogs is how most of them would prefer to spend their spare time.

Woods Humane Society is a nonprofit animal shelter located in San Luis Obispo and founded in 1955.

While most of the mammals that walk around at Woods have four legs, the ones with two legs make the world go round at the San Luis Obispo shelter.

Catherine Armstrong is the volunteer coordinator. She says the shelter currently has 350 registered volunteers and a 98% adoption rate.

"We've gotten over 3,000 animals in the past year and we've done over 3,000 adoptions as well," Armstrong said.

The hundreds of volunteers are there to assist the staff, but they do so much more than that. They play with the cats and dogs, clean up after them, and even take professional photos of them that can be used to help them along in their adoption process.

Just by the time they dedicate to Woods, it’s obvious how much these volunteers love animals.

“I’ve loved animals my whole life,” said Chris Broome, a master volunteer.

Susan Wright, also a master volunteer, is a little more honest.

“I’ve been married two times and I think more about my dogs than I do my ex-husbands," Wright said.

Bonnie Louwerens, a cat behaviorist and master volunteer at Woods, has loved felines since she was a little girl.

"I understand cats better than people, I think," Louwerens said.

Abhiram Yellamilli is a Cal Poly student, but he spends a lot of his time as a canine enricher at Woods. The relationships he forms with the dogs keep him coming back.

"They're always happy to see me, I’d say,” Yellamilli said. “I'm always happy to see them."

The job does come with some challenges.

“I think that's one of the hardest parts of being a volunteer, trying not to want to adopt one every time.”

However, that is the goal after all.

Mimi Ditchie, the master photo volunteer at Woods, has opened her heart to some of the four-legged friends she’s met so much so that she’s taken a few home.

“I have adopted two cats and one dog since being here," Ditchie said.

For the last 12 years, Ditichie has watched these furry faces come into Woods from all over California. Her job is unique in that she photographs the cats and dogs in their best moments, capturing their personalities, all to help them get adopted. She edits the photos, which are later posted to Woods Humane Society’s Facebook.

“You feel really good when you see your pictures on Facebook and that might bring somebody in to look at the animal, or if they don't look at that animal, they'll look at somebody else,” Ditchie said.

Ditchie couldn’t capture every photo on her own. Cheryl Conway is another master volunteer who assists on the photo team at Woods, making sure the animals are comfortable and ready for their closeup.

"Some of them come in here, they sit, they look at the camera, they throw you a smile, they throw you a tilted head," Conway said. "Others are just shivering and shaking because the shelter environment can be stressful for them."

Mimi Ditchie is a volunteer photographer at Woods Humane Society.

Shelter life can be scary, and not all dogs and cats are comfortable with it.

“Just knowing that I can be there to help calm them down is a huge thing for me,” Yellamilli said.

What these volunteers provide the animals with is mutual.

"It's helped me with just talking to people, interacting with various age groups and then just getting skills with animals," Yellamilli said.

Volunteers who often times have medical backgrounds, like Susan Wright, assist surgeons and veterinarians in the surgery suite.

"We're just like a second hand of helping out the surgery center,” Wright said.

Aside from spaying and neutering procedures, not every day back there is easy.

"We have to hug each other, help each other through a moment maybe," Wright said.

Outside of the operating room, there’s the memorial garden, a corner of the property where animals that have crossed the rainbow bridge can be honored.

"It's a place for the staff to come and honor an animal that may have not made it out of here."

Not every job at the shelter is glamorous, but it is necessary. The laundry facility is a huge part of the operation at Woods. Chris Broome has been offering up his time at Woods for nearly a decade, ensuring each animal has clean bedding every single day.

"I would guess each day we do about 300-400 pounds of bedding laundry," Broome said. "Sometimes it gets tedious, you know, when you have another 100 pounds of laundry. There's a good sense of achievement. We want the animals to be presentable and adoptable and when that happens it's a good feeling."

Not all volunteering happens at the shelter. Bonnie Louwerens is a cat behaviorist who has been volunteering at Woods for about three years fostering kittens.

"My biggest goal is to make sure that the cats stay in their homes and they're not returned to shelters and given to shelters because they're misunderstood," Louwerens said.

She fosters the kittens from when they are born up until they’re ready for adoption.

"I have to feed them, I have to help them go to the bathroom, I have to keep them clean,” Louwerens said.

Her 20 years of experience has made her an advocate for felines.

"You have to have a bigger voice for them, and they don't have a voice, that's where people like myself, you know, other volunteers, step in and try to have a voice that they need."

This is a trait that is common among the staff and volunteers at Woods Humane Society, advocating for animals who need a forever home.

"Every time you see one of them that may be a challenge to get adopted, and you see them go out the door with their forever family, your heart just grows," Conway said.

For more information on how you can become a volunteer at Woods Humane Society, click here.

Other animal shelters across the Central Coast:
Santa Maria Valley Humane Society
San Luis Obispo County Animal Services
HEART Cambria
Santa Barbara Humane Society