Castaic Animal Care Center volunteers bond with pets, people

Volunteer Carissa Barnes with domestic short hair kitten at Los Angeles County Castaic Animal Care Center. (Photo by Dan Watson)

Caramel is ready for her close-up. The fluffy, 5-year-old terrier with tawny hair tilts her head as Terra DiSpirito finds that perfect angle with her cellphone.

After getting the shot for the Castaic Animal Care Center’s Instagram page, DiSpirito hugs Caramel close.

“You’re so cute,” DiSpirito exclaims as Caramel looks at her adoringly.

Since 2015, DiSpirito has spent at least two days a week volunteering with the dogs at the center after moving to Santa Clarita from Venice.

“I wanted to meet friends and help pets,” she said. “There’s such a good group of people here. We love to work together.”

Nacho has his picture taken by Terra Dispirito at the Los Angeles County Castaic Animal Care Center. (Photo by Dan Watson)

For the last 18 months, social media has been DiSpirito’s focus. With help from fellow volunteers Denise Martin, Nicole Schalker-Graham, Randi Andrews and Renee Focht, she has been posting photos and videos that showcase the adoptable pets in their best light.

“We always want to have the pets looking at the camera, outside, in natural light,” she said. “I also like to show dogs playing and interacting with people. We want to keep it as upbeat as possible.”

She also spends at least two hours a night at home, after putting her kids to bed, answering messages from interested parties on Instagram.

That kind of interaction has been effective for getting pets into homes, as DiSpirito illustrated.

“Instagram has really blown up lately,” she said proudly. “People are coming from all over to adopt and our numbers have really increased.”

DiSpirito is one of 80 active volunteers at the center on a regular basis. Volunteer tasks include dog walking, cat socializing, laundry, bathing and helping in the medical clinic and at mobile adoption events.

“Volunteers give staff a greater ability to provide good care and service to the animals and our community. These are some of the most helpful, caring individuals I have had the pleasure of working with. We have volunteers that go above and beyond and seem at times to have tireless energy,” said Karen Stepp, general manager at the center.

Larissa Barnes is one of those tireless types. In addition to spending time with the cats and the kittens at the center, she fosters dogs and cats, as well as trains new recruits how to foster and volunteer. The latter has been especially crucial with a busy kitten season.

“We have lots of kittens in foster care, more than any other county shelter,” Barnes said.  “And because these kittens are raised in a home since they’re bottle babies, often with children and dogs, they are really sweet and affectionate.”

Barnes also helps people who come to the center find their perfect feline friend. She’d love to recruit more cat volunteers who share her passion, since only about 15 percent of current volunteers help with cats.

“We need photographers that work with cats and people with social media experience to promote them,” Barnes said. “You’ll get lots of cat hugs and kisses in return.”

Like DiSpirito, Barnes started volunteering after relocating to Valencia from her native Australia, with a goal of helping pets and meeting people.

Now she counts the volunteers among her best friends.

“There’s a wonderful sense of solidarity among people working towards a common purpose,” Barnes said.

Inevitably, even when they’re out and about, talk turns to their favorite pets at the center and adoption successes.

“The best part of volunteering is seeing pets leave the building,” DiSpirito said. “And we love seeing the social media updates of how happy they are in their new home. It makes us feel so good.”

Castaic Animal Care Center is holding its next volunteer orientation 10 a.m. Saturday at the Castaic Sports Complex. Interested parties must submit an online volunteer application in advance at For more information, call the center at 661-257-3191 or stop by during business hours: Monday to Thursday, noon to 7 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.. Castaic Animal Care Center is located at 31044 Charlie Canyon Road, Castaic.

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