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Cat in cage being fed by animal shelter volunteer

Interview with Laura McElhinney, Great Falls Animal Shelter

Without the hard-working, passionate workers and volunteers in the animal rescue world, most dogs would never make it to their forever homes. Laura McElhinney, the previous Volunteer Coordinator and Administrative Assistant SR for the Great Falls Animal Shelter in Montana, is one of the most dedicated individuals I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. With her experience, Laura is able to offer an in-depth look at working in animal rescue and provide tips for preventing burnout for those who share her passion.

Q. Laura, would you please introduce yourself and share your background in the animal rescue world?

A. My name is Laura McElhinney, and up until September 2016, I was the Volunteer Coordinator and the Administrative Assistant SR for the Great Falls Animal Shelter. My entire life I have been saving stray and injured animals off the streets, not just dogs. April 2012, I implemented the Shelter Sidekick volunteer program, which I created from scratch. With me leading the volunteers, we were able to turn our once high-kill shelter (and black-marked facility by the community) into a no-kill shelter and a facility the community can be proud to have. 

Q. What prompted you to start the volunteer program at the Great Falls Animal Shelter?

A. At the time, I was the Administrative Assistant for the Manager’s Office. The community requested a volunteer program be started by the Animal Shelter, so the Deputy City Manager asked me to see what I could do. She just asked if I could try to create a policy manual and they would work on hiring a volunteer coordinator, as I really wasn’t interested in working with that many people. Well, over time, I could see what a positive effect this program could have on the Shelter and the community, and in turn all the animals. So I decided to give it my all and created, implemented, and managed the entire program. 

Q. It’s great that you were able to become so involved and really make a difference for these animals. In your opinion, what is the most challenging aspect of being a part of the animal shelter staff?

A. The biggest challenge of being a part of the animal shelter staff is dealing with people who do not care about animals as much as we do. It is very easy to become jaded towards the human race. On a daily basis, I had to remind myself that most people are good, the people making us angry are few. This way I wouldn’t take my anger out on people who had legitimate reasons to rehome an animal. It is very easy for people in the rescue world to forget this. There are legit reasons to rehome. Sometimes, it truly is the best thing for the animal. I always tried to tell myself, if the owner feels it is best to rehome their pet, no matter the reason, then that is the right thing to do, regardless of how we feel. 

Q. As someone involved in rescue, I can definitely relate to the feelings of anger. However, there are so many happy moments at a rescue. It must be so rewarding when you see a dog finally get adopted after a lengthy stay at the shelter. Can you share any feel good adoption stories?

A. It is extremely rewarding seeing a dog get adopted at any time, but especially after a lengthy stay. I have a lot of success stories, but the one that is the most recent is a German Shepherd named Pascal. I am so proud of the volunteer program and how much it has grown. There are numerous talented and dedicated volunteers at the Great Falls Animal Shelter now, so the shelter is able to keep some dogs in the facility that other facilities may consider unadoptable due to their behavior. Pascal was not aggressive, but for lack of a better term, very neurotic. He had a stay at the shelter for 5 months. We screened potential adopters and were very honest about his behavior, but over the course of the 5 months his behavior got better and better. We knew he just needed a chance to live in a home and he would improve even greater; that being said, we knew he needed a family that would be very active and dedicated to his training. If they didn’t continue his training, he would just revert back to be a menace to society. After 5 long months, he was finally adopted and his new family has sent us photos and updates with him sitting quietly in his backyard and having fun at the beach. We are all so very happy for Pascal. 

Q. Unfortunately, there are so many stigmas out there about animal shelter and rescue dogs. People believe that rescue dogs are damaged, certain breeds don’t make good family dogs, and animal shelters are just trying to make money. What is the biggest stigma you have had to work through?

A. The biggest stigma our shelter has had to work through is getting past our old image of killing everything. That was true over 5 years ago. Those days are long gone. The other would be the whole Pitbull thing that almost every place has to work through. This being said, we always had posters and articles around talking about the Pitbull stigma. Another thing I pride myself in with the volunteer program is we made sure the dogs got training. The program was not about taking the dogs out to go potty. It was about making the dogs more adoptable. So, this worked for the benefit of all the dogs, regardless of the breed, but especially the pitties. We could show people what good citizens they were. 

Q. What do you wish more people knew and understood about animal shelters?

A. In most facilities the staff genuinely cares for each and every animal. We try to make them feel at home as much as possible. We love them, so everything we do is for the betterment of that animal; not to hurt people or make them mad by not approving an application. We are just trying to do what is best for the animals that we have fallen in love with and want the very best for. While living in a shelter isn’t ideal, it is better than being out on the street, it is better than being euthanized (in most cases).

Q. As I’ve mentioned, I’m involved in rescue and while I love helping animals, it can be both exhausting and heartbreaking. What advice do you have for someone interesting in pursuing a career at an animal shelter?

A. Don’t ever think you will get rich. Be sure you have a solid stress relief process set in place before starting this career. I have witnessed so many people get burned out mentally and physically, get into financial ruin trying to ‘save’ them all, become hoarders trying to ‘save’ them all, etc. You must be able to separate work life with personal life and have an outlet for the stress. It is an extremely rewarding career, but you have to come to grips that you will not be able to save them all, you just do the very best you can for as many as you can. 

Q. Many people want to become more involved with their local rescue or shelter but aren’t able to commit full-time. How can people like this help their local shelter?

A. Donate money, supplies etc., become a foster parent or volunteer, or adopt and become an advocate for them. 

Q. Laura, is there anything else you’d like to add?

A. Working at the Great Falls Animal Shelter has been one of the best experiences of my entire life and I will forever cherish my time there. There is nothing like working in the animal rescue world. So rewarding, yet stressful at the same time. 


Kelsie McKenzie is the owner and fur-covered girl behind the scenes of It's Dog or Nothing, a resource for ‘all things Pyrenees.’ She currently lives near Seattle with her Air Force husband and two Great Pyrenees, Mauja and Atka. Kelsie is also a content creator, social media manager, and an avid animal lover.

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