Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Holiday 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
Every year on the Saturday before Christmas, Justin Rudd dons his bright red Santa suit and bushy, white beard and heads down to the Long Beach animal shelter in Southern California. In the parking lot out front, he meets up with dedicated volunteers who have spent several weeks collecting toys, treats, and other supplies to help homeless animals.
Then comes the fun part: spreading some holiday cheer by giving the donated gifts to the pets who need them. Volunteers aren’t normally allowed to feed the animals, but this afternoon is an exception. In addition to happy cats and dogs with some extra treats in their tummies, this holiday giving campaign also benefits the shelter in many other ways. “We bring cleaning supplies, bedding, toys, dog food and cat food, kitty litter, bleach, dog and cat shampoos, leashes, collars, and more,” Justin said, listing the items in his goodie bag like any superior Santa would. “It really feels like we are Santa Claus when we go there.”
Justin has organized the annual supply drive, dubbed Operation Santa Paws, for the last 14 years in conjunction with his Long Beach-based nonprofit organization, Community Action Team, which focuses on projects benefitting the environment, children, and animals. Operation Santa Paws was inspired by a similar endeavor in Justin’s home state of Alabama that collected gifts and repaired bikes for children in need. When he moved to California, Justin decided to focus on the animals. “I would estimate that in Southern California, we serve about 4,000 dogs and cats” each year, Justin said. “I would love for every dog and cat to find a forever home, especially at Christmastime.”
Justin said that giving cats toys can help them find homes, because playing alleviates boredom and helps withdrawn cats become socialized. “We donate toys and treats because a dog or cat that’s well-socialized is more likely to be adopted,” Justin said. “When people are visiting a shelter to look for a pet, if the cat is happy and playing with a toy, it seems like a friendly animal because it’s interacting.”
A professional photographer, Justin also helps homeless pets get adopted by snapping photos of the animals during each Operation Santa Paws delivery. He posts the photos to his social media sites, especially Facebook, to introduce the cats and dogs and hopefully help them meet their match. “You strike while the iron is hot,” he said. “While people are still thinking about Operation Santa Paws, I’ll post pictures of adoptable animals.”
As much as it benefits the animals, Operation Santa Paws also benefits the many volunteers who collect items at their workplaces, churches, schools, or community centers and make the delivery to the shelters. Each year, at least a few of the volunteers are visiting an animal shelter for the first time. “A lot of people are reticent about going to a shelter because they feel like it’s the place where dogs and cats get put down or are in terrible shape,” Justin said. “They don’t want to face that. The reality is those dogs and cats need our help. When I bring my volunteers to the shelter, they get to see that there are some amazing animals here.”
Often, volunteers become overwhelmed when they realize so many pets are without homes — but sometimes those intense feelings can lead to a happy ending for humans and animals alike. Justin said it’s not uncommon for volunteers to return to the shelter after an Operation Santa Paws event to adopt a cat or dog they fell in love with. “Particularly rewarding is when all of those volunteers show up and get super emotional,” he said. “I think it’s in that brokenness that they realize they want to be a better steward for animals. It’s amazing seeing these volunteers come in there, young and old alike, and love on animals that have been unloved.”
Justin estimated that over the last two decades, Operation Santa Paws organizations have spread to more than 25 states. He encourages anyone who wants to start a similar supply drive to use his organization’s name and logo. “Any city or person could easily do this,” he said. “Put bins in public places and label them as official drop-off spots for Operation Santa Paws. You’re going to get some stuff, whether it’s a little or a lot. We want groups all over the world to do this.”
It just goes to show that this Christmas, with a little time and effort, anyone can be Santa — white beard and red felt hat optional.
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About the author: Angela Lutz is a writer living in Kansas City, Missouri. This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat-rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of head-butts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix. Follow Angela on Twitter at @amLutz.