Almost three years ago, I said the Shahada (declaration of faith) and converted to Islam, so I don’t celebrate Christmas any longer. I do, however, have fond memories of the Christmas holiday as a volunteer with Gabriel’s Angels, where I was a pet therapist. I was also an animal shelter volunteer who helped many years for pet photos with Santa at various PetSmart stores. Here are some of those memories.
At Christmas time, PetSmart stores partnered with local shelters and/or rescue groups for a fundraiser called Pet Photos with Santa. PetSmart provided the camera and film then split the proceeds with the rescue groups. I assisted with various shelters/rescue groups for the pet photos. As a regular volunteer, I dealt with thoughtless owners, comforted abused animals, and worked with people whose mission it was to save unwanted animals. I grabbed the chance to surround myself with people whose pets were cherished parts of the family. That would be a welcomed relief.
Because sitting came easily to me (the result of a car accident), I sometimes wore the Santa suit, also courtesy of PetSmart. What a ball I had, even though the beard and the wig were itchy like a crinoline slip. Some big dogs were terrified of having their pictures taken with Santa. I struggled to hold them next to me. One giant dog was so scared me yanked me off the bench and started to pull me across the floor. Good thing I had a strong grip or that dog would’ve swept me out the door. A fuzzball of dog with curly tail lifted his leg on my shoes and left me with a stinky memento. A fluffy gray cat clawed my beard like it was a scratching post. One dog snarled at me and bared its teeth. I refused to pose unless the owner sat between me and the dog. A freckle faced boy wanted to pose with Santa, even though I was a ‘girl’.
At a far west side location, an older man on a horse trotted slowly through the parking lot up to the store entrance. The horse obviously could not enter the store so we brought everything outside. I posed next to the man and his horse for his pet photo with Santa. He left feeling quite satisfied then galloped towards West McDowell Avenue.
That same day, a young couple arrived with a turkey, yes, a turkey. They had purchased the bird for Thanksgiving dinner. The bird stayed in their backyard for a few days. When it came time to kill the bird, both husband and wife balked. He said to the wife, you kill it. She said no, I can’t either. They ended up keeping the turkey for a pet. So, at Christmas time, they arrived at PetSmart to pose with Tom, their new pet, for a photo. The bird cooperated for his first photo opportunity.
Late one afternoon at another store, a woman arrived with a small carrier. I assumed it held a cat, or maybe a rabbit. My mouth felt like chalk when I saw a large white rat. I grew up in New York City and to me, rats were unwanted guests. I would’ve screeched if I ever saw a rat of any color in my apartment. Fortunately, I only had occasional mice and roaches. Still, as Santa I had to act proper and pose with the white rat, even though I squirmed inside.
On bathroom breaks, I rode my scooter through the stores. Customers at one store called out, “Hey, Santa’s on a scooter. Go Santa.” Some even applauded. I was pleased to see people’s attitudes towards disabilities had softened.
Every year I went home feeling rewarded and uplifted about spending the day with people who adored their pets. It was worth all the time I spent stuffed inside a hot, scratchy suit just to see the human/animal bond at work. I needed days like that to renew my spirit. Otherwise, I wasn’t sure I could return to rescue work, especially when I volunteered with the county. How many times could my heart break?
Over the years, I rescued dogs myself from shelters and rescue groups. I had their pictures taken with Santa too. One year, I had six dogs. With the grace of God and a little help from an unknown customer in the parking lot, I got all six dogs into PetSmart. I still have all their photos.
I volunteered as a pet therapist with Gabriel’s Angels for almost eight years. My adopted dog Luke and I visited children at a homeless shelter. Spending important holidays like Christmas at a shelter instead of your own home was often emotional crushing to the families. Every year, several friends collected toys for these children. I was so thankful for their generosity. I wrapped each child’s gift in holiday paper and a bow. Their excitement was priceless as they ripped open the presents and treated them as if they were gold. As an added bonus, I borrowed Christmas music CD’s from the library. We sang along to tunes such as Jingle Bells, Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Luke added his own canine crooning by howling at various parts of the songs. That made the children crack up. Christmas at a homeless shelter was a sobering experience I’ll always remember. Shelter staff and volunteers pitched in to make their holiday as warm and comforting as possible.
At times, I felt so inadequate. So many troubled children passed through with emotional anguish that stretched beyond my position as a pet therapist. Even my training as a social worker didn’t always give me an advantage. I relied on Luke to soothe their wounded souls. But there were times even my dog couldn’t help. I did the best I could but there were times I felt it wasn’t enough.
The flow of unwanted animals into our shelters never seemed to end no matter how many free spay/neuter days we offered the public. Homelessness in the USA was always a problem that could have been addressed with more funding for low and middle-class housing but it never is. I doubt it will be in my lifetime either. In the meantime. I thank Allah for the chances I had to spend time with all these homeless children and for the happy times at PetSmart. May He continue to allow me to now grow and learn in the Islamic community that I now serve.