Best Friends internship program inspires scholarship recipient to help cats and kittens at Hopalong Animal Rescue

When Donna Cerio began an adventure as a five-week intern last August at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, she knew it would be a life-changing experience. The dance teacher was already considering a career change. She was drawn to animal welfare and hoped that the internship would help her find her niche and set her on the path to following her dream. It did all that and then some.

Through the internship, Donna discovered that she wants to put her teaching experience to use with a new career in humane education. As she prepares for the transition, she is using what she learned at Best Friends to make life better for cats and kittens at Hopalong Animal Rescue. Hopalong is an organization in Oakland, California, whose mission is to eliminate the euthanasia of dogs and cats through rescue, spay/neuter and education programs. Donna has been a cat care volunteer for the rescue group for the past five years.

Scholarships make internship with animals possible

You might be wondering how someone with a demanding career (or anyone with a full-time job and a full plate of adult responsibilities) could step away from day-to-day life and be immersed for five weeks at the Sanctuary. Donna made it happen with funds from three internship scholarships: the Andy Kostuik Memorial Scholarship, the Isabel Bei-Ja Blaney Sun Memorial Scholarship and the Maureen A. Udell Memorial Scholarship.

Mary Hartrich, an intern program specialist for Best Friends says, "Scholarships are given to interns who demonstrate a financial need, as well as an understanding of the no-kill 2025 goal and a desire to bring what they've learned back to their communities — which is why Donna was a recipient."

Learn more about no-kill 2025

During her internship, Donna spent her first week at the Bunny House, the second at Horse Haven and Marshall’s Piggy Paradise, the third at Parrot Garden and Wild Friends, the fourth at Dogtown and, finally, the last week at Cat World. “Donna really threw herself into the experience,” says Mary. “She tried to learn as much as she could during her time here, especially about cat and kitten care.”

Donna Cerio standing with Faith Maloney and another person in front of Angel Canyon

Bringing knowledge and know-how back to the community

When she returned home to Alameda, California, Donna resumed her volunteer duties at Hopalong, armed with new knowledge and feeling inspired. She immediately started working with staff and volunteers to help streamline processes and improve programs.

The first thing she focused on was Hopalong’s laundry room. The space was stressful, because the piles of dirty laundry were never-ending and no one was ever able to keep up — or so it seemed. But Donna saw how much laundry is done at the Sanctuary (hint: tons) and noticed that the rooms were organized and laundry never piled up to the point of being overwhelming.

Hopalong is a small rescue organization with only five full-time employees, so volunteers are relied upon to do a lot of the work — including laundry. As an added challenge, they don't have industrial washers. But Donna thought a little inspiration would go a long way, and she was right. She took a picture of the laundry rooms in every Sanctuary animal area she worked in. Then, she took those photos back to show Hopalong staff and her fellow volunteers what a laundry room could look like. What happened next? Everyone pitched in, the room got organized and the piles of laundry began to shrink.

Large piles of linens in the Hopalong Animal Rescue laundry room

Improving cleaning protocols and foster parent guidelines

Next, Donna turned her attention to cats and kittens quarantined in a separate room at Hopalong’s facility for ringworm, a treatable but also contagious skin condition. While she worked at Cat World, Donna also assisted with some kittens quarantined for ringworm. She studied Best Friends’ cleaning protocols to kill the spores that cause the condition and stop it from spreading.

Learn more about treating ringworm in cats

Since she already volunteered in Hopalong’s quarantine room, Donna shared the protocols with staff and fellow volunteers, and then proceeded to take on her cleaning tasks with renewed vigor.

“I’m getting things done in the ringworm room,” she says. “I follow Best Friends protocols for sanitizing with kittens in the room. The volunteer manager ordered a mop like the ones used at Best Friends that will make it easier to mop, especially when kittens are living in there. The ringworm room looks like a sterile luxury suite — free of germs and spores with plenty of enrichment and some extra socializing time. I am writing guidelines to be followed for deep cleaning twice a week. I will deep clean one day and another volunteer will do another day.”

Donna says she’s excited for these changes: “I feel like I can make the biggest difference for the kittens who end up there by shortening the amount of time they have to spend in quarantine through better cleaning and sanitation. I just want to make their life better as much as I can.” (Less time spent in quarantine means that cats and kittens can get adopted into loving homes more quickly.)

Finally, Donna began working with Hopalong’s foster program coordinator to find ways to encourage foster parents to do more socializing with their kittens. For example, handling kittens’ ears and feet will make nail trimming and ear cleaning easier when they get older. Leaving cat carriers out so that kittens can get accustomed to them will make it easier for them to be crated for trips to the vet and other outings. These suggestions will soon be included in the packet provided by Hopalong to people who foster pets.

Donna Cerio sitting in a golf cart with a tan and white dog sitting in her lap

Education will help achieve no-kill by 2025

While an organized laundry room, improved cleaning standards and better guidelines for foster parents may seem like small improvements on the surface, they can go a long way toward saving the lives of more homeless pets.

During the five weeks Donna spent interning at Best Friends, one theme kept surfacing for her.  “I feel like the biggest challenge in animal welfare is lack of education,” she says, adding that she is committed to helping the nation achieve no-kill 2025 by sharing what she learned. “The experience at Best Friends keeps giving, as I knew it would.”

Learn about Best Friends internships

Photos courtesy of Donna Cerio