04/30/2011 12:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2011

So You Want to Help Animals

People ask me all the time what they can do to help animals. "Consider veganism," I say to those who've not yet extended their compassion to animals grown for food. Yet whether we choose to eat some animals and revere others, or choose instead the path of least harm, plenty of people care deeply about animals and want to know what they can do "besides donate." So here ya go, folks: suggestions ranging from the easiest and most obvious to the more far-reaching.

  1. Share your time and talents. No matter the community in which you live, there's likely a dog and cat shelter in your region. Needs vary, but some typical needs are shelter cleaning, dog walking, web design, and assistance with mailings. Got a flip camera? Tweet a zillion times a day? Your shelter director might kiss your feet if you offer a few hours of your social media savvy. A caveat: "popping in" to a busy shelter is never a good idea! Check online for a volunteer application. If none exists, send an e-mail inquiry.

Want to help where the need is greatest? Find out whether other shelters or sanctuaries are in your area. Sanctuaries for wildlife, farm animals, horses, reptiles, or even exotic animals may be right in your back yard, and you can bet they have fewer volunteers than the local SPCA. Google "animal shelters" in your county, but be prepared to do a little more digging.

  • Keep your eyes open. An alarming fact: one in six hoarding cases is at a "sanctuary" or "shelter." So find a rescue that's deserving of your time, but keep your eyes open: if there is filth, overcrowding, the stench of urine, or areas that only a select few humans are allowed to visit, it's probably run by a hoarder. If that's the case, be prepared to report the organization. And don't wait until it's too one of our more heartbreaking cases, volunteers reported a shelter only after many animals had already died of starvation.
  • Give us stuff we truly need. Every shelter has a wish list! Items that CAS and others rarely receive enough of are: recycled paper goods, non-toxic, biodegradable cleaning products, postage stamps, and gift certificates to our feed supply stores. What shelters might not need is food for the animals, as that's what most folks tend to donate. Check first.
  • Raise some serious dough. Most folks would rather scale K-2 blindfolded and naked in an ice storm than raise funds for a non-profit...even sometimes if they're charged with doing so. The result? Poorly-funded non-profits.
  • Enter YOU: the irrepressible, energetic, think-outside-the-box YOU. And here's what you do:

    a. Make a list of the things you love to do. My list would include hiking, biking, reading, swimming, paddleboarding, writing. Yours might include cooking, kickboxing, knitting.

    b. Say to yourself "I'm going to plan a ________-athon (fill in the blank with an activity from above) for ____________" (name of your favorite sanctuary or shelter.)

    c. Feel completely overwhelmed and a little panic-stricken for 10 seconds. Then, take a slow, deep breath and say, "___________ (your name), you can do this." Because you can.

    d. Set a challenging financial goal. David DiNicola, for instance, is raising $100,000 for CAS and Berkshire Humane Society by riding his Harley across the country this August.

    e. Recruit a team of folks to help plan and promote your event. At minimum, you'll need a good logistics person and a good marketer.

    f. Get busy, have fun, and congrats! Your public event will draw even more support for your favorite shelter, and you'll have gained skills and confidence that you can continue to use on behalf of your animal friends. Way to go!

  • Learn what animals endure at human hands. Are you ready to face what we're doing to animals? I won't kid you that what you'll learn is easy to let in. But suffering exists in large part because people ignore it. If you truly love animals, maybe it's time to understand what we're doing to them in order to become a more powerful advocate.
  • Earthlings is a shattering documentary that depicts the war mankind wages on animals of all species; Michael Pollan's Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy is an equally powerful book. To learn what we're doing to billions of animals grown to feed humans, consider the films Death on a Factory Farm, Glass Walls, or read Jonathan Saffren Foer's Eating Animals. There are hundreds of resources for those ready to peer behind the veil.

    It took me many years to understand that human beings have enslaved animals for our selfish purposes. Think food and entertainment -- racing, petting zoos, dog fighting, circuses. It took even more years to learn that animals are used for cruel and unnecessary product testing and contained, in the form of by-products, in thousands upon thousands of personal and home care products. The animals need for us to know the truth.

  • Do something about it! This one's a no-brainer, folks. Once you learn that you've been an unwitting participant in horrific cruelty, you'll likely want to change your buying habits. All it takes is a few clicks of the mouse! IT REALLY IS THAT SIMPLE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE TO THOUSANDS OF ANIMALS OVER THE COURSE OF YOUR LIFETIME. A few of my favorite cruelty-free companies are: Vegan Essentials, Vegan Goods, Alternative Outfitters, The Vegetarian Site, Rare Natural Care, and MooShoes.
  • Be an activist for animals. Large national animal protection agencies lobby at both state and federal levels for the passage of anti-cruelty laws. Check out the advocacy section of HSUS, ASPCA, and Farm Sanctuary websites to discover the many ways you can advocate for a kinder world for all animals.
  • Every Sunday at noon at Catskill Animal Sanctuary, I give a two-hour tour. If you're in our region (we're just 90 miles from Manhattan in the mid-Hudson Valley), I hope you'll join us, for while I can encourage you that extending your circle of compassion to animals you've never met is the most meaningful way to offer your help, there's nothing quite like a scratchy cow kiss or the soft nudge of a pig snout on your cheek to seal the deal.