Lots of expats retire to France or go for a better quality of life and have more time on their hands. For many it is a great opportunity to do some voluntary work. Helping out a branch of SPA for just a couple of hours a week, the Société de Protection des Animaux is an excellent way to get involved with volunteering in France meet new friends and your French neighbours, get involved in your local community and help animals to enjoy a better life…
Pam Roberts who volunteers at the SPA in Limoges, Limousin tells us about her experience:
I’d been thinking about volunteering at the SPA for some time but was worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope with seeing all those poor homeless animals. Would I get too upset and would my limited French be a problem?
When LAARF – SPA Volunteer Network suggested the Woofer Walk at SPA Limoges it was my opportunity to give it a try. I went with two friends which made it easier, but arriving outside and hearing the barking, my anxieties returned with a vengeance. We were encouraged to walk round the circle of cages to meet some of the residents. By the time I was half way round I was weeping – they were all so keen to lick my hand and say hello – the sheer numbers and the noise was overwhelming. As I was pulling myself together I met Leeanne from Twilight, (the old dogs home) and we had a chat- she was there to pick up a little blind girl and a beautiful 3 legged girl.
I always feel humbled by the work of Twilight so I gave myself a stiff talking to and got on with it. Thinking about it sensibly I soon realised that the dogs were actually very well fed (some of them a bit porky), mostly healthy looking and the pens are dry, quite roomy, mostly clean, light and facing out towards each other and the grass. Many of them are in pens with their friends and I guess that for many of them their lives here are better than where they’ve come from. I took a couple of them out with another British volunteer and immediately it felt worthwhile. The dogs are so keen to get out, rather than wanting a cuddle they nearly rip your arm off heading for the gate!
Since that first time I’ve returned regularly. I still feel emotional and needless to say I’ve fallen in love more than once. I have been given strict instructions not to bring any more dogs home although the temptation to pop one in the boot of my car is almost irresistible.
I have no doubt that it is very worthwhile. Although the SPA staff clearly do great things, they simply haven’t got time to exercise the dogs and if it weren’t for the volunteers they wouldn’t get out of their cages. While some of them are being walked others can get out and run freely in the enclosed green spaces and their enjoyment is evident.
You never really get used to the smell or the noise of the dogs all vying for attention but as it becomes more familiar the impact is less severe. The main change for me has been that the dogs start to become individuals. As you get to know them and maybe walk the same ones over time they become separate personalities and inevitably you start to have your favourites and become emotionally attached. Although all animals are special there are those that just get to you in some way. When I see people looking at the dogs intending to re-home one I always want to guide them to my favourites.
As I’ve become more confident in my role I’m happier to make my own decisions as to which ones to walk. Although it’s tempting to take your favourites it’s so important to make sure they all get their turn. There are often several British volunteers and 4 or 5 French and so we are able to get something like 35 – 40 dogs out of their cages during the afternoon. Some of us walk the dogs in pairs if they’re caged together whilst those that don’t get on too well with others have to be walked alone. Despite the dogs being so full of energy and presumably many of them with bad experiences of humans, I’m always surprised by how good natured, friendly and amenable they are. I take a bag of snacks which helps, and at the end of the day I usually go around the cages giving away the remaining snacks and greet the new arrivals It is at this point that I often feel tearful but I have to tell myself that I’ve given up just a few hours but made a bit of a difference to a few of them.
As well as difficult and sad times there are also some joyful ones. I have been involved, in a minor way, in the adoption of several dogs and felt enormous pleasure as I’ve watched them go off happily with their new owners. On one occasion a newly adopted large black labrador leapt with pleasure into the back of the car to join his new brothers and I helped a gorgeous border collie’s new owners choose a collar and lead for him to start his new life.
These moments are memorable and us English speaking volunteers can have a role in helping English speaking potential adopters with the SPA system.
For anyone considering volunteering I would urge you to give it a try. You may well go home smelling like a compost heap but you will certainly feel that your time has been really well spent.
For more information you can contact the volunteer group on: info@LAARF.com
If you are looking to adopt an animal in France – this is a great Facebook page with lots of details about animals looking for a new home: LAARF Adoptez Moi
Phoenix Association is an animal rescue centre who love to rehome the animals in their care.