I always think of animal shelters as important but terribly sad places. All those abandoned animals, desperate for a loving home – it’s a heartbreaker.

It takes a very special kind of person to work in these places and not burn out, so, when I heard that Paws had interns, I first thought they must be veterinary students. To my surprise, they were no such thing.

Being tremendously nosy, I invited myself over and went to see what was going on. What I found was a wonderfully uplifting story that I simply have to share.

One of the current interns is Ophelia Andrew, a 23-year-old Psychology student in her second year of her bachelor programme at HELP university. And guess what? She’s not studying animal behaviour!

“I want to be a clinical psychologist,” Ophelia shares. “At first, I was looking at interning with an NGO that works with kids, or perhaps a corporation so I can work with lots of different people. But then the list came out of suggested contacts, and I saw Paws – I called them straight away.”

Ophelia is an animal lover, with Terry, her 11-year-old mixed breed, being one of her best and oldest friends. However, while this 440-hour internship involves a certain amount of cuddling puppies and walking older dogs, the real lessons involve dealing with clients.

“The hardest thing is when someone comes in to surrender their dog,” Ophelia admits. “On my first day, there was a guy who wanted to drop off his 10-year-old sick dog. I told him that we would take it but that there was a big chance we’d have to put him down. We’re full to bursting point; vet bills add up fast and we just can’t cope. That’s when he started yelling at me.”

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Ophelia Andrew is learning a lot through her internship at the animal shelter. Photo: Ellen Whyte

Like many young people, Ophelia was a little frightened – both by the aggression and the shouting.

“I was trying to explain as nicely as I could that we just aren’t able to do everything for everyone, but it didn’t work,” Ophelia recalls. “He screamed at me, and then went off, taking his dog with him.”

Now, two months later, she looks back at this and shrugs. “Back then, I was angry and frustrated when he left. It’s still not nice to be yelled at, but I’m not affected by it as much anymore. For one thing, I’m more confident and that’s because Agnes, Edward and Leong, Paws’ full-time staff, coached me. Also, I’m not frightened anymore when people yell at me!”

One of the hardest jobs is putting animals down.

“We can’t keep them all,” Ophelia says. “I know it’s just not possible but it’s so upsetting. I think people rush into things, buying without thinking, and they simply don’t pause to consider consequences. They buy an animal because it’s cute or because of pity and then discover they can’t keep it. Later, when I’m working, it may help for me to talk to people about decision-making.”

While shelters are about animals first, the human stories are also compelling.

“A lady came round to surrender her dog because she’d been diagnosed with cancer. None of her family members would take her pet, and she was in tears. That was really hard,” Ophelia says. “It really got to me. I was thinking, what if that were me? What can I say to this lady that will help?”

Thankfully, there are also some happy stories.

“There are the adoptions,” Ophelia says. “Also, some of the people who come here are really appreciative. They surrender pets they’ve found or can’t keep and they’re grateful we’re here. And I’m meeting loads of people, like the volunteers who walk the dogs. I’m enjoying this – a lot!”

Away from the shelter, simply pitching up to work for 10 weeks and putting in a full day has some interesting lessons, too.

“Back home, when I did my diploma, I worked as a tutor, and a promoter,” Ophelia says. “It was fun, but I was living with my family and that meant back-up. Now, I have to do my own housework, laundry and so on. It’s tiring sometimes, but to have the dogs greet me every morning is great! I’m really enjoying myself.”

And that’s the uplifting thing about this story. I met Ophelia for an hour but I’ll tell you this, if I were the CEO of a company, I’d hire her in a heartbeat. The soft skills she’s picked up during these few months range from communication to conflict management, and they’re impressive.

Animal shelters are there primarily to provide for abandoned pets, however, opening them up to interns is a win-win situation for any community.

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On-the-job training

Running a shelter is hard, grinding work. It’s challenging in so many ways, especially emotionally, so those who sign up to intern here learn a panoply of life lessons as well as vital skills.

But what do the shelter pros say about them?

“Interns at Paws learn our daily routine, attend to the public, manage volunteers and help out with our events,” Agnes Lim, assistant shelter manager explains.

As work can be complex, there is significant on-the-job training. This means that short-term internships can be a problem.

“Some jobs, like taking pictures and helping us update adoption notices, are fairly simple,” Agnes says. “They help us a lot and the interns pick up fast.”

SPCA Penang has interns too. “We take in first-year vet students so they can learn shelter management basics,” Kogi Ganapathy, administration and shelter assistant, says. “They learn the basic foundation skills from bathing the animals and handling them, to giving them medicine.

“It’s helpful to us not just because of the practical assistance, but also because we learn from them and they learn from us.”

Interestingly, veterinary students are also helpful with adoptions. “When they get to know the animals, they can explain to clients their personality traits,” Kogi says. “They also help update our Facebook to aid in the adoptions, which is wonderful.”