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Humane society worker:
'Is that a bear?'

Sarah Del Collo
Sarah Del Collo with Kismet  


Sarah Del Collo


I work at the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley in Santa Clara, California. It's the largest animal shelter on the West Coast and cares for about 40,000 animals a year.

I'm a volunteer at the shelter and do a number of jobs, but I spend the most time as a clerk in the on-site pet store. I also do a few hours a week of administrative work and this month will be helping to keep the clinic clean during the rush of Spay and Neuter Month.

Time in position

I've been with the society for four months.


I'll be 30 years old in March.


I have a Ph.D. in Anglo-Irish literature. I find it amusing that this wasn't nearly as important to my supervisors as the fact that I'd worked at fast-food restaurants and had handled cash.

"I have a Ph.D. in Anglo-Irish literature. I find it amusing that this wasn't nearly as important to my supervisors as the fact that I'd worked at fast-food restaurants and had handled cash."

How did you get your current job?

I moved to San Jose with my husband so he could pursue a job in computer hardware design. As it's difficult to find a job teaching college if you are not willing to relocate, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands and without any social contacts.

Volunteer work seemed like a good way to deal with that situation. The shelter gets many applications for positions that involve direct contact with the animals, but it's harder to find people who'll do other types of work. I was willing to do whatever job they needed doing, and while the normal training sessions for animal workers were full, the pet store was so desperate for help that they were willing to take me in immediately.

How many hours do you work per week?

At the pet store, I usually work from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (the store hours), or from 9 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. on Thursdays, when we receive shipments for the week. I do administrative work on Tuesdays from 11 to 3 and I'll be scrubbing the surgery floors and kennels on Mondays from 3 to 5 p.m. for the rest of this month.

I just go wherever they need me. It's fun because there's always something new to do and they're not that desperate for people to work weekends, which I like to spend with my husband.

graphic Either as a volunteer like Sarah del Collo or as a full-timer, would you want to do humane society work?

Yeah, working with animals and finding them good homes would be really rewarding.
I'm unsure. I love animals but that much exposure could be overwhelming and "make them a job," not a hobby.
Nope, I'm just more into people as colleagues. Although the people talk back more than the animals do.
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What's the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning?

I walk my dog. It's great being able to bring my pet to work, but it does take some planning. I play with her in our yard for half-an-hour before leaving for work, and that usually wears her out. Once she's puppy-gated with me behind the counter, I get my cash drawer from upstairs (where on a peak day there are a dozen dogs and 10 people) and open the store. If I'm early, I stop in at the cat kennels or the bunny room and say hello.

What time do you have lunch? What do you usually eat?

I eat whenever and whatever I have time to. Because we have trouble getting enough volunteers in the pet store, there's often only one person there. Going out to lunch would mean closing the shop and losing money, and lunchtime tends to be a "rush" time when people stop in during the workday.

We nibble on whatever we can stash behind the counters. Some days, the smoked beef dog treats start to smell pretty good. When there's someone else there -- fortunately more common lately -- we cover each other's lunchtimes. I admit that the burger store across the street gets its share of my money.

My dog, Kismet, gets kibble for her lunch.

What time do things get tense around the office? What makes it that way?

It can get tense when you have to try to explain to a customer that he or she is making a poor decision. One woman was angry when we told her she couldn't feed a kitten on cow's milk and that she needed to buy kitten formula. I suppose she thought we were just out to make money, but it would have been bad for the kitten's health.

That sort of situation can be delicate, as we want to keep customers happy but are primarily there for the good of the animals.

Our other perennial and more amusing difficulty is customers who need to size collars on large, excitable dogs. About once a week I end up in a wrestling match with a very happy, very exuberant Labrador retriever.

The job can be a bit hectic at times, especially with my puppy at work with me. We're a nonprofit organization, so some of the equipment isn't state-of-the-art. Juggling customers, a cranky computer system and a puppy who needs to go now can be a challenge. The plus side is all the oohs and aahs Kismet gets and all the little children who love to pet her.

The Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley offers a range of services including lost-and-found, a vaccination clinic, implantation of microchips (for retrieval when pet is lost), testing, spaying and neutering. The facility is open 24 hours per day, seven days per week and was established in 1929. The nonprofit organization has an annual operating budget of some $5.5 million and is headed by its president, John Lipp. And we met Sarah Del Collo when she used our submission form to let us know about her day on the job. Let us know if you'd like your workday profiled by clicking here, as Del Collo did..

If you're having a good day at work, what is it that makes it good?

The animals. It's great to see the dogs heading home with new families. They all look excited, thrilled and determined to be the best dogs in the entire world. They know they're being rescued and they're wonderfully trusting and eager to show that they deserve it.

The cats are usually more nervous, but we know they're going to good homes. The happy endings we see are wonderful, too. I saw one poor man nearly in tears as he surrendered his dog, Bogey -- he'd developed a severe allergy to the animal. It was heartbreaking to see how he'd brought a bed and toys and food for Bogey.

Two weeks later, I saw Bogey come through the store, wagging and grinning, with a family of delighted children. That was a great thing to see. Of course, having my own dog there is a bonus I couldn't put a price on. She loves people and is getting wonderful socialization, and of course I love hearing "What a cute puppy!" a few dozen times a day. (And once, "Is that a bear?")

The people at the shelter are fantastic, too. The administration values the volunteers and makes them feel appreciated. You get a lot of praise and positive feedback in this job. It's a very pleasant working environment, and you feel a strong sense of teamwork and commitment.

How much work, if any, do you take home?

Right now, very little. However, they've just asked me to run my "English teacher eye" over the new employee handbook, so I expect that to increase. Naturally, I do take my dog home. :)

What does your work contribute to society?

Every day the pet store is open, we earn a substantial sum for the shelter. I have great respect for the program at this shelter, particularly because they don't just concentrate on crisis management. They do shelter and re-home thousands of animals each month, but they also have a strong education program that includes school visits, an animal behavior hotline, pet therapy and a low-cost spay and neuter clinic. They've made wonderful progress in lowering the numbers of abandoned animals in the area, and I feel proud to be helping with that.

Do you expect to finish your working life in this career?

I would never have thought so before, but some times it tempts me. It's a real pleasure. There are paid positions, but right now I like the flexibility of being a volunteer.

If you could have two more careers, what would they be?

Well, a college English teacher would be the first choice. It's what I am trained to do and I do love teaching. Second choice would probably be a zookeeper.

What's an unforgivable trait in a colleague?

There isn't much you can't forgive when you're all working for a good cause. Volunteers at the shelter are a very mixed group. They're mostly people who have a fair bit of time on their hands, but their reasons for doing this work range from being elderly and retired to having had catastrophic accidents. They all have their own particular strengths.

The only thing I really dislike in any colleague is an unwillingness to do the work, and I haven't found anyone like that here. If anyone in the shelter has committed the "ultimate sin," it's actually probably me. I got my dog, Kismet, from a breeder and not from a shelter. However, she's such a sweet Teddy bear that no one seems to have a problem with this, especially as we're training her in hopes she can serve as a therapy dog.

"We nibble on whatever we can stash behind the counters. Some days, the smoked beef dog treats start to smell pretty good."

What do you do to relieve stress?

I walk around the animal kennels. People often ask me if I find this depressing, but it's quite the opposite. I love animals and love to visit them, and there's always someone new there. It's reassuring to see just how quickly most of the animals are adopted. I also like to do physical work to de-stress. A few minutes of throwing around 40-pound bags of dog food can work off a good deal of nervous energy. My original profession as an academic is very intellectually oriented, and it's a pleasant release to do physical work -- you can see the results.

What have you been reading lately?

"Gulliver's Travels" for about the 10th time. Jonathan Swift is one of my favorite authors. You have to admire someone who can hate and love human beings so much at the same time, and who can pack a full fantasy adventure and a scathing satire of human nature and contemporary political conditions into a 200-page book. His writing style is a very humbling experience for someone in the language arts.

When you have one of those days on which you don't think you can face the job again, what is it that gets you out the door in the morning and off to work?

"The guys" (the animals) all waiting there for me. I know they're always there, 24-7, waiting for me to come help them out. When you walk into a row of kennels and see 30 noses snuffling the gates and 30 tails wagging excitedly, you really feel welcome there, and that's the image I have of my workplace. They are always happy to see me.

Actually I haven't had a day (other than a sick day) when I didn't want to go in. It's been great. I just feel a little guilty when people thank me for volunteering. I get a lot out of the job -- a sense of purpose, people to meet and chat with, and a lot of new things to learn. I think it's more than a fair trade.


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Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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