As a child, North Shore Animal League America’s Senior Volunteer Manager, Lauraine Merlini, always thought growing up within walking distance from the Bronx Zoo was always just an awesome perk. The Bronx, N.Y. native recalled taking countless trips to the world-famous zoo with her father from their home on Rhinelander Avenue, but never thought those trips would inspire her to turn that passion for animals into a successful career in animal welfare.
“It’s funny because I always wanted animals, but I wasn’t allowed to have them growing up,” she said. “My dad always loved to walk to the zoo, and it was a beautiful place to explore. That’s where my love for animals started to blossom.”
When Lauraine turned 16, she went from regular visitor of the zoo to a part-time employee, doing anything and everything including giving tours and occasionally operating the park’s monorail. Lauraine continued to work at the zoo over the years, and even interned there while earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Communications at Fordham University.
Eventually, Lauraine would accept a full-time job as a wildlife educator where she would teach wide-eyed, impressionable children about the zoo’s wildlife and lead the organization’s outreach programs. It wasn’t until the birth of her son, a relocation to Long Island, and the loss of a beloved rescue dog that made her think it was time for a change.
“Tasha was the first dog I had, so when she passed I was really missing being around dogs and having that connection in my life. That’s when I decided to apply to be a volunteer at North Shore Animal League America,” she said. “My first job when I got here in 2005 was walking dogs and helping potential adopters find the perfect pet over in the Adoption Center. I just wanted to help out in any way that I could and be around the animals, especially the dogs.”
Lauraine dedicated much of her free time to improving the lives of the hundreds of homeless shelter pets at Animal League America. Even after being hired part-time in 2007, she continued to volunteer by walking dogs on her lunch break and after her daily shifts. Without that kind of selflessness and compassion from our volunteers, Animal League America would have never sprouted from a tiny local shelter in Port Washington, N.Y. into the world’s largest no-kill rescue and adoption organization.
“We rely on the volunteers a lot here, so much so it’s like they are an extension of the staff. Without them we wouldn’t be able to operate as efficiently as we do, and as a result we wouldn’t be able to save as many lives,” said Lauraine. “So many of the people who volunteer do so because they truly want to make a difference in the lives of the animals and will do anything to help. Those are the ones who make the best volunteers and allow us to do what we do here.”
Today, almost 11 years after walking onto the campus for the first time as a brand new volunteer, Lauraine is running the department as Senior Volunteer Manager. Apart from being in charge of the 400 active volunteers currently enrolled in the program, she has a plethora of other responsibilities, including coordinating the organization’s Shelter Pet Outreach Team, conducting tours of the campus, and assisting with the placement of animals in our one-of-a-kind Foster Care Program.
In 2009 Lauraine received an award for Outstanding Achievement for her developmental work with Animal League America’s outreach and humane education programs. It’s safe to say this former volunteer has made quite the impact on the organization and its’ beloved animals, but it may be her impact on the people she has worked with over the years that has made an even greater impression.
“Lauraine has been a wonderful mentor and great professional resource for me since I’ve taken over as foster care manager. She’s always there whenever I need her and will go out of her way to help me in any way she can,” said Foster Care Manager Tara Guclu. “She also makes sure the volunteers know that they are valued, and the feeling is mutual – the volunteers have so much respect for her.”