Animal friends

Kids and teens are valuable volunteers at the Nevada Humane Society

A Nevada Humane Society shelter resident awaits a new home.

A Nevada Humane Society shelter resident awaits a new home.


“How much do you want a pet?” I ask my son, Nico.

“Probably more than the average kid,” he says.

“Do you think you’d be a good pet owner?”

“I’ve got no clue.”

“What do you think are the responsibilities of owning a pet?” 

“Scooping poop, walking them, feeding, giving them water, being sweet to them so they don’t feel lonely, playing with them and training them.”

I ask, “How much time do you think that would require?” He estimates a number of minutes for each task: two for feeding, 200 for training, 140 for playing catch. His total is 544 minutes, which works out to nine hours a week.

Thinking like a mother, I add that there are a few concerns about pets’ health, safety and whereabouts to consider.

Thinking like an 11-year-old boy, Nico adds, “You might have to be mean and make them take a bath.” His time estimate for baths was 45 minutes, 15 of which would be spent convincing the pet to bathe.

This conversation took place on the way to the Nevada Humane Society, and it was theoretical. I clarified before, during and after that we were not actually going there to adopt a pet. My ulterior motive was to spend months or even years making sure my son has realistic expectations about being a pet owner before becoming one. My real motive was to find out what it’s like to volunteer at the shelter, especially from a kid’s perspective.

Of the 300 or so people a month who lend a hand at the shelter, about a quarter are kids age 10-18, give or take a few. Community programs manager Nikole Nichols said it’s hard to come up with a solid number because many people fill out volunteer forms but don’t end up volunteering. Most kids who volunteer do it simply because they love animals, and Nichols also hears from kids who are thinking about becoming veterinarians.

The Nevada Humane Society, which cares for about 8,000 animals each year, is located in a campus that looks like a self-contained, stucco strip-mall, which also includes a clinic. Inside, Nico observed, “It looks like it’s supposed to be comfortable.” Cheery 20-somethings greeted and directed visitors from behind a long, curved desk. The open reception area looks like that of a hospital, with a cookie jar of dog treats on the counter and, where a hospital’s gift shop might be, a window-lit room full of placid-looking rabbits. They’re in cages arranged for browsing, just like in a store. Each cage has a sign with details about the rabbit’s name, age, personality and arrival date. Nichols mentioned that this room sometimes also has birds, lizards or other small pets that have been surrendered or rescued.

She showed us to the “cat colonies,” rooms that look and feel like offices, in which several cats roam freely. They have large windows that make strolling through the hallway seem like cat shopping in a cat adoption mall, which is exactly what several visitors were doing.

A dark gray cat was curled up asleep inside a carefully crafted wooden arch that perfectly fits one of the showcase windows. The arch has oval-shaped holes to crawl into, steps to climb and a small metal plaque explaining that it was built by an Eagle Scout.

“Cats prefer to have various levels of heights,” Nichols said. “One of the things that’s most frustrating for cats in a shelter is a lack of choice.” She explained, “We work very hard to make this place comfortable, but no matter how hard we work, it’s still a shelter, and it’s still a stressful environment for the animals. We put a lot of effort into making it clean, making it comfortable, and that depends a lot on our volunteers.”

One teen built an agility course for dogs in the exercise yard, using plans he found online. Other young helpers have come in with their families to pitch in with tasks such as laundry, administrative duties and socializing with cats. (Dogs need buddies to socialize with too, but for that job you have to be 18 or over.)

“We are contacted often by kids’ groups who want to do a project but don’t become regular volunteers,” Nichols said. Girl Scout groups and church youth groups have held supply drives, for example, collecting kitten food, dog treats, litter, bedding and toys.

For groups, Nichols said, “It helps us if they come in with an idea.” For those who aren’t sure where to start, she has some handouts to get them on the right track.

With construction projects, Nichols pointed out, “We have final design approval.” But she’s amenable to ideas, and she appreciates initiative. One preteen boy was at the shelter recently while his mom helped with administrative tasks. He asked Nichols if she’d like a flier to advertise off-site animal adoptions. “I made one,” he announced, showing her the image on his laptop. She recounted, “It was great little flier, so I said, ’Absolutely. If you want to print that off and hand it to friends at your school, go ahead.’”

Nichols also said, “If you like to sew or bake or crochet, come talk to us. There’s a good way to put that to use for our animals. Just because it’s not on our list doesn’t mean it can’t be useful. Some volunteers just like to take pictures. Well fabulous, we need pictures.”

“Our volunteer program is pretty flexible,” she explained. “If we have a specific need we put it out there, but the volunteers really choose when, where and what.”

Unless their mothers intervene, which I did. Nico wanted to play with cats, but I insisted we help with a more mundane task first: folding cardboard litter boxes. They’re like the bottom half of a box that a dozen doughnuts would come in, and the shelter, in an effort to keep things clean and sanitary, goes through a few ceiling-high stacks a day. They come flattened in a case and need to be assembled by folding on creases and putting slots into notches. At first, Nico was mildly exasperated with this unglamorous post, but he dutifully went with the flow. We creased and folded for about a half hour.

Afterward, we looked in on some sleeping kittens. My non-cat-person heart warmed at this sight of these tiny balls of sleek, black fur and adorable pink noses. Nico beamed in adoration and announced, “I’m literally going to melt. I think I might ditch the architecture career idea and work here.”

Mothers think it’s adorable when their kids are loving toward animals, and I did think it was adorable, but half my mind was still on the lookout for signs that my son could be developing some realistic sense of what it’s like to care for an animal. We headed back to the cat colonies for the more coveted cat-petting job, and he rose to the challenge, gently approaching cats to see if they were friendly, keeping his cool when they rejected his affection, and patiently interviewing a knowledgeable 21-year-old volunteer for tips on interacting—or not—with cats who might be anxious.

“Mom, tail swipe,” he alerted me, “you should give that one some space.” He’d learned while we were there that when cats “wag” their tails, it’s not necessarily to express contentment, as dogs do. For cats, it could mean distress.

“Good looking out,” I said. Mission accomplished.

Pro tips for prospective young Nevada Humane Society volunteers

The minimum age for volunteers is 10.

To work with dogs, you must be 18 or over.

Volunteers under 16 need an adult supervisor.

Before you go, fill out a volunteer profile online, at

The list for most-needed supply-drive items changes frequently, so if you're planning a supply drive, contact the shelter in advance.

Follow Nevada Humane Society on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube to keep on top of the shelter's current needs.

Got an idea you think would help the shelter? Call Nikole Nichols at (775) 856-2000.