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How 6 Rescues Find Joy During the Tough Holiday Season

The holiday season is not so jolly for a lot of pet rescues. Here’s how they help their animals — and their volunteers and staff members — this time of year.

by Mollie Jackman
December 22, 2022
Two women and a man in glasses sitting in front of a decorated and brightly lit Christmas tree while the central woman holds a Shiba Inu dog looking directing at the viewer
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This is a time of giving, cheerful gatherings, decadent charcuterie boards (yes please, give us all seven types of cheese), pets and their people in matching onesies — it’s all very heart-eye emoji-worthy. But for many animal lovers, this season also conjures up images of forlorn-looking abandoned pets as Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” plays in the background. Luckily, the countless employees and volunteers in the world of animal rescue have plenty of ways to combat the challenges that come along with their industry during the holiday season. 

A little more context: Foster numbers shrink dramatically at the end of the year. People are working extra hours to pay for increasingly expensive gifts (we see you, inflation), traveling to visit friends and family, or are simply booked with a zillion holiday parties, so availability is scarce. This means rescue organizations can’t take in as many new pets as usual, and many animals already in the care of a shelter or rescue must be shuffled around to accommodate foster parents’ travel plans. Plus, the low temps outside are dangerous for unhoused pets who need shelter ASAP.

The Wildest spoke with six animal rescues and shelters across the country about the reality of the difficulties they face this time of year and how their holiday traditions keep spirits up among staff members, volunteers, and animals alike. They also dispel some common concerns about giving pets as gifts and share a few creative ways you can help if you’re short on time and money right now. (Laundry duty, anyone?). 

Second Chance — Columbia, Missouri

Mid-Missouri’s largest animal rescue organization is led by Executive Director Giulia Hall, who tells The Wildest that compassion fatigue is “huge in the rescue and vet industry.” She adds that it’s tough when “you’re supposed to be in the holiday spirit, but you’re still dealing with homeless animals and terrible situations.” 

Compassion fatigue is, indeed, a huge problem for people working as veterinarians, so much so that they’re significantly more likely (up to 3.5 times for female vets) to die by suicide than people in other professions. But the more animal welfare organizations can do to ensure pets are properly cared for and placed in good homes, the more pressure we can take off our community’s veterinarians (who, by the way, Hall says would love a vegetable tray instead of the usual cookies or candy). 

To help maintain a positive mindset during the challenging season, Second Chance hosts an annual “Misfits and Mistletoe” event, which features some of the animals who need the most help — whether behaviorally or medically — with their care at the time. “People really like it,” Hall says. “We do it by invitation only, and we make a big effort to make it stress-free for the dogs and cats so they get seen in the best possible light.”

Piedmont Animal Rescue — Mooresville, North Carolina

Piedmont Animal Rescue (PAR) will be celebrating six years in January of 2023. Fundraising Manager Donald Gullett praises their team’s ability to “maintain a tight-knit group” and jokes that even the dog volunteers and the cat volunteers get along with each other.

PAR typically takes on whatever types of animals they can accommodate — meaning their fosters may be housing anything from small mammals and reptiles to horses. Their foster-only operation has fewer short-term fosters during the holiday season, Gullett says, adding that “the number is actually almost cut in half from earlier this year.” 

To help make space and celebrate some of their longest-term residents, the organization has set up a tree at Davidson, North Carolina’s Giving Tree Village — where it sits among trees from 68 other nonprofits. Visitors can vote for the organization they want to receive a donation. They’ve adorned theirs with ornaments featuring their hard-to-place pets to raise awareness about their great qualities. Their favorite holiday tradition, though, is a collaboration with first and sixth graders from nearby Woodlawn School. Students choose an adoptable animal and feature them in a piece of artwork alongside a description of the pet and why they recommend their chosen dog or cat to be your new family member. 

Carolina Boxer Rescue — Hampstead, North Carolina

Carolina Boxer Rescue (CBR) was started over 20 years ago to serve North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia. This 100 percent volunteer-based rescue is now over 500 people strong. Constantly pursuing their motto, “No nub left behind,” the organization offers some specialized services, such as hospice care for senior dogs and behavioral training courses for foster parents. 

“The holiday season is an especially difficult time for rescues and shelters alike,” says Andrea Williams, director of fundraising and events for the organization. “For shelters, they tend to see more dogs being surrendered. For our rescue that is 100 percent foster-based, we often see a decline in foster homes…We have a tough time with transports this time of year as well, since so many people are traveling or just unavailable.” 

Luckily, this year CBR was able to have four separate events that helped boost morale and brighten the season. Williams continues: “We have two events where Santa Clause came out and took photos with pets, and two other events that featured The Grinch. These events are a great way to introduce people to the rescue, get amazing photos, and help fundraise.”

Saving Grace Pet Adoption Center — Roseburg, Oregon

Megan Gram, executive director and certified animal wellness administrator at Saving Grace, says their organization’s biggest challenges this year began back in March. Following the end of the COVID-19 eviction moratoriums, their intake numbers have increased by more than 500, compared to those in 2021. “That, combined with the lack of spay/neuter available due to a veterinary shortage, has created a bit of a perfect storm for shelters across the country,” Gram says.  

Saving Grace is the only brick-and-mortar shelter in their county, which means they take in “everything from dogs with serious bite histories to tiny kittens rescued from car engines.”

So far this holiday season, they’ve had two reduced-adoption-fee events — one sponsored by Bissel Pet Foundation and one by Best Friends Animal Society. Gram says some people have the misconception that lowering adoption fees means lowering the quality of adopters for pets, but that isn’t the case in her experience.

“The team was resistant at first,” Gram explains. “But once they saw that the quality of homes and the love given to these newly adopted pets was not in any way correlated with the amount of money charged for an adoption, they were all on board!”

MSPCA, Boston — Massachusetts Adoption Center

The second oldest SPCA in the country, Massachusetts SPCA (MSPCA) has been open since 1868. Operations Coordinator Corinne Bourgoin works at the organization’s Boston Adoption Center, but they have many other centers and facilities in different areas of the state. In addition to their adoption centers, the MSPCA is also home to two private veterinary hospitals and two locations in vocational high schools, where, with the help of students who want to go into the veterinary field, the rescue holds low-cost community clinics.

Bourgoin speaks to the stigma around giving pets as gifts, which is an added challenge for rescues every December. “Historically, animal welfare said, ‘Don’t give pets as gifts,’ but [in 2013] the ASPCA did a study that showed pets given as gifts aren’t loved any less, nor do they stay with the family any less,” she says. 

MSPCA’s favorite event, Great Saves, a multi-organization celebration of their successful collaboration, took place in October, several weeks before the holiday season. “I think it’s so nice to be able to take a moment,” Bourgoin adds. “It’s nice to slow down and see the positive results of us working together as a collaborative team.”

Helping Hands Humane Society — Topeka, Kansas

Grace Clinton, director of philanthropy at Helping Hands Humane Society (an organization that has been serving its community as early as the 1800s — seriously), says their shelter actually sees fewer challenges during the holidays than some other rescues and shelters report. “Honestly, we love the winter/holiday season…Kitten season slows down, people aren’t out and about as much, so dogs aren’t getting loose.” 

Luckily, they do take time to celebrate the years’ worth of hard work. “Every year, our board hosts a Christmas party where we open late to the public and have a nice lunch together,” Clinton says. “We’ve also done a variety of adoption specials, such as ‘Winter Freeze Adoption Fees,’ ‘Black Furday,’ and ‘Yappy Yowlidays’ to try and encourage people to still adopt if the time is right for their family — and not to worry about the fear of stigma if they need to return the pet.” 

Their most-loved holiday event, though, is “Christmas for the Animals,” where the shelter collects pet-safe canned goods and other food, cook it up, and serve it to their residents on “gilded platters,” otherwise known as frisbees. Local media representatives come to the event to become celebrity servers for the night, and every shelter pet gets a new toy with their gourmet meal. 

How You Can Help

Every rescue The Wildest spoke to said fosters and volunteers are always needed, especially during the holidays. But if you simply don’t have the time to squeeze in one more activity, there are a few ways you can still help: 

  • Offer to bring the organization’s laundry to your home and do it for them

  • Make a financial donation

  • Collect pet food or supplies like linens and toys 

  • Spread the word about low-cost services that may help community members keep their pets instead of surrendering them 

  • Be extra kind to animal care workers who are facing more challenges than usual this time of year

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Mollie Jackman

Mollie Jackman is a writer, editor, and graduate of Lindenwood University’s MFA in writing. She’s also a pet parent to a goofy big-eared dog and two brown tabby cats, plus a rotating cast of foster animals. When she’s not reading, writing, or picking up strays, she can be found binge-watching arguably terrible reality TV shows and cooking competitions or rolling around the local skating rink in Columbia, Missouri.