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Marcello's Family 

A volunteer at an animal shelter gets back as much as he gives. A personal essay.

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As I pull into the parking lot of the Harahan no-kill animal shelter operated by Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO), I see Marcello, my foster dog, performing flips at the sight of my arrival. On a scale of 1 to 10 relative to world importance, my volunteer work at the shelter nurturing and walking Marcello is perhaps a 1. On a scale of personal gratification, it is unquestionably a 10. Our mutual love for each other has brought us immense joy. 

  I enter Marcello's kennel and attach a long leash to his blue collar. His springs in the air subside into happy tail wagging. He has waited the entire day for this moment. Perhaps we both have. Giving him his first treat of the evening, we start walking in the chilly night.

  Marcello is a two-year-old black-and-white pit bull mix who resembles Petey the pup from The Little Rascals. He was rescued by ARNO's Lise McComiskey less then a year ago near a bar in Central City. Neighbors told Lise that people often threw bottles at him, and someone had even burned his fur with chemicals. Despite his former neglect and abuse, Marcello is one of the most affectionate dogs in the shelter. He is extremely bright and recently learned to sit and lay down on command. Following our walks, he always runs to what is called the "nurturing swing" at ARNO, where he performs for treats. 

ARNO came into existence in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Its all-volunteer staff labored feverishly to rescue hundreds of cats and dogs left homeless by the storm. Many animals lost during the storm have been reunited with their owners. In some cases owners were never found. With its initial post-Katrina objective met, the shelter turned its attention to rescuing stray and abused animals. The job of around-the-clock care for more than 200 dogs and cats is grueling, and the fact ARNO, funded by private donations, does so with an all-volunteer staff, is extraordinary.

  I'm a longtime animal lover. My wife Barbara and I have a dog named Leo and five cats that have all been rescued from the streets or local shelters. I've been a volunteer at ARNO since last October. My primary role is to walk, nurture and socialize the dogs that have been abused and neglected. The altruism that I have witnessed since I have been involved with ARNO is like nothing I've ever seen. On Christmas Eve, when the rest of us attended parties and gatherings with our friends and families, ARNO volunteers spent the evening bathing, feeding and nurturing animals that may have been destroyed by more traditional shelters. I never hear anyone at ARNO complain about their work. The oneness they achieve through their labor of love is all that matters.

  In contrast to ARNO's no-kill policy, the Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter destroyed 7,700 dogs and cats in 2008. To place these numbers in a more comprehensible yet less palatable perspective, that means the shelter puts down an animal every hour of each day. While it's difficult to grasp what it means to euthanize thousands of dogs, puppies, cats and kittens, it is just as difficult to comprehend the anguish of those who must perform the task. The thought that someone at animal control must report to work each day knowing they will euthanize 20 to 30 animals chills me.

click to enlarge If public apathy regarding neutering and spaying (and adoption) is - not aggressively addressed, the geometric birthrate of dogs and cats - will continue to place animals like Marcello at risk.
  • If public apathy regarding neutering and spaying (and adoption) is not aggressively addressed, the geometric birthrate of dogs and cats will continue to place animals like Marcello at risk.

  The solution to animal overpopulation is not as simple as opening more no-kill shelters. Groups like ARNO have the capacity to house and care for fewer dogs and cats than the Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter destroys on a biweekly basis. The crisis of animal overpopulation also cannot be resolved through euthanasia. For every dog and cat destroyed, dozens are born. If public apathy regarding neutering and spaying (and adoption) is not aggressively addressed, the geometric birthrate of dogs and cats will continue to place animals like Marcello at risk. 

Following our walk through Elmwood Industrial Park, we arrive back at ARNO's parking lot and sit on what is called the nurturing swing. Marcello gladly takes his position and stares at me in anticipation of his next treat, sitting in front of the swing with a military like-stance. I give him his reward. He quickly eats the biscuit, jumps in my lap and falls into a peaceful sleep. 

  After giving him his final treat, I unleash Marcello and he eagerly retreats to his small kennel. He suddenly appears subdued, as if anticipating tomorrow. Walking toward my car, I turn and watch as he stretches on his small mattress in the far corner of his run, content to know he is loved.


— ARNO is seeking volunteers for a wide spectrum of activities that includes walking, nurturing, fostering and socializing the many dogs and cats in their care, as well as feeding animals and cleaning their cages. Volunteers must be at least 16 years old and have a commitment to help animals acquire a better quality of life. To learn more about ARNO's work, donate to the shelter or become a volunteer, visit or email

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