We Volunteered at an Animal Shelter in Belarus

Every summer, my family vacations at a country house (or “dacha” in Russian) near Vitebsk, a city of about 250,000 on the eastern edge of Belarus, not far from where my wife grew up. Our days are usually filled with chopping wood, hauling water, and other back-to-nature type of tasks, but this year, I awoke one July morning to learn that my wife had volunteered us for the local animal shelter.

Though it may not seem at first glance like a typical vacation activity, one of the kids’ daily pleasures at the dacha was bringing scraps of meat to the stray dogs who linger along our community’s main road. Going from that to working at an animal shelter was not much of a stretch; we were all really pumped by the idea.

And thus I found myself rolling into the parking lot of the Vitebsk Shelter for Homeless Animals, a squat utilitarian building in an industrial zone on the outskirts of town, with an address on a road that did not show up on the GPS.

The lot was empty. We were the only volunteers that day.

The driveway leading to the shelter, left. Residents enjoy the sunshine, right. (Photos by Isabella Rykoff)
Puppies are housed in cages on the building’s second floor. Siblings are kept together. Every cage has a cardboard tag indicating the dogs’ names and dates of birth.

I am pleased to say that the interior of the shelter did not smell of rot, death, feces, or disinfectant. It had a funky smell, for sure, but it was more the smell of dog than anything else.

The lights were off (to save electricity I presume) and we saw not a soul, though there were quite a few dogs roaming around. After poking our heads into some open doors, we found a staffer and announced our willingness to help out. A shout was raised, and after a time, a woman with a highly focused manner, the matron of the shelter, appeared. She appraised the manpower on offer: Myself, my wife Lena, our children Isabella, 15, and Anthony, 10, and their cousin Vanya, 11.

“Children cannot walk dogs without an adult,” announced the matron, “but they can help us by raking the perimeter.”

“You,” she said, looking at Lena, “can help us clean the refrigerator.”

“And the man?” asked one of the staffers.

I pictured our refrigerator at home, which gets a good scrubbing every once in a while.

“Here to help,” I said, as the matron approached and gave me the once-over.

“Are those the only clothes you have?” she asked.

At which point I noticed that she and her co-workers were all dressed in the kinds of outfits one wears to go duck-hunting: thick polyester jumpsuits and tall rubber boots.

Lena and I were in sneakers and jeans.

“We’ll get you some aprons and gloves,” she said.

A red-haired lab mix showed us how to find the kitchen.

The children left with one of the staffers, while Lena and I were coaxed by a red-haired labrador mix into the kitchen, where the matron joined us. She ushered us down a short corridor into the mouth of a humungous walk-in freezer, stacked head-high with bags and boxes of frozen meat: This was the “refrigerator” that needed cleaning. Our job would be to empty it.

Hoooooo-ly shit!

As promised, Lena and I were provided with aprons and gloves.

Before I had finished tying the strings, the matron had climbed atop the mound of meat and started tugging at the bags and boxes at the rear of the freezer.

I assumed second position and passed whatever she pulled from the pile to Lena, who then laid them along the walls of the anteroom, the anteroom’s anteroom, the corridor and the kitchen itself. Other staffers joined us in short order, as we formed a kind of bucket brigade of cold meat.

I truly have never seen so much meat in my life.

Allow me to pause here, briefly, to describe some of the things we found: Supermarket carry-out bags of chicken bones discarded from ordinary kitchens; stacks of store-bought packets of sausages, the price stickers still affixed to the shrink wrap; plastic crates of ribs, I would guess from lamb, jumbled with some sort of internal organ that I initially mistook for discarded pita bread; a cow stomach the size of a microwave; kevlar freezer bags of fish, banana cartons of restaurant discards and more.

After a while the parcels began to thaw under the heat of the July afternoon, until the floor became slippery with water and blood. The aprons were only marginally helpful in keeping it all from our clothes. We have yet to get the smell out from our sneakers.

Lena poses amidst the meat.
A partial view of the refrigerator’s contents after we had finished emptying it. It was not possible to fit everything we moved into a single frame.

I would say that we cleared out over two tons of meat that day.

I asked one of the staffers how many days food it represented.

“I don’t know,” she said, “it depends on a lot of things, but we have 350 dogs, and 100 cats to feed.”

The shelter receives some money from the government to cover basic operating expenses — keeping stray dogs off the street is a matter of public health — but not enough apparently to buy food for the animals. And whereas shelters in the West might rely heavily on cash donations, the people in struggling eastern Belarus do not have the kind of discretionary income to support charity.

But they do have meat.

A resident begs for attention, left. Anthony plays with one of the House dogs. (Photos by Isabella Rykoff)

After emptying the freezer, the staffers asked us if we would like to walk some dogs.

“Definitely,” came the answer as the kids were freed from their garden duties and we were all handed leashes and led to various cages, where we introduced to Lhasa, King, Rupert, Cherry, Gucci, Bay, and many others.

We let our charges lead us where they would. Each had a place that it liked to smell and take care of its needs. As we strolled around, we were joined by the “house dogs,” the dozen or so residents who have been deemed ‘no flight risk’ and thus allowed to roam the territory freely.

A meeting of noses.

I asked one of the staffers if anyone ever came to adopt a pet.

“Every once in a while,” she answered.

But not too often, apparently, meaning that the dogs we met are more or less permanent residents. The shelter adheres to a strict no-kill philosophy, so it runs at full capacity all the time. Families who bring unwanted dogs or cats are turned away, with advice on how to advertise a pet for adoption on the internet.

All the cats and dogs we met seemed properly fed and washed. Some wore bandages or IVs that showed that they had received the attention of a veterinarian.

But dogs and cats of course, need more than just food and water. They need something to do.

For these guys, boredom was the great enemy.

Thus the arrival of new humans like us was a huge event.

Approaching any enclosure triggered a riotous response, as the residents in one cage would jump and bark, thereby arousing the attention of the occupants of the neighboring enclosure, who reacted in kind, and so on down the line, until an enormous din was raised. We learned to not walk too closely to the southern edge of the territory, where most of the animals were housed, because it aroused such an incredible commotion that we had to shout to hear one another over the noise.

The noise from barking at this end of the territory was deafening.
Feline residents are segregated into their own rooms, where distractions like this shelf are provided.

I must admit that when I first heard that we would be visiting the shelter, I was rather apprehensive. Trained by the many news stories I had read over the years of intolerable living conditions in Russian prisons and mental institutions, I feared that the Vitebsk Shelter for Homeless Animals would turn out to be a charnel house of unspeakable horrors.

Instead my family and I found a bustling community of cats, dogs and humans. The staffers we met brought an extraordinary level of passion to the their jobs, for which, I am certain, they receive nominal pay. And the residents were a charming, albeit very lonely, crew. Back home in Brooklyn, we look for the faces of the friends we made on the shelter’s website, and worry for them, especially now that winter is coming.