Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Becoming a no-kill county one foster home at a time

Aiken County Animal Advocates


(Palmetto Animal Welfare Services, Inc.)

By Joya DiStefano

This Aiken County Animal Advocates Columns was posted in the Aiken Standard on 12/20/2013

The artistry of an Annette Van Der Walt animal photo makes the subject so lovely, so real, so compelling that you can almost feel its presence in your home. One of those portraits can save an animal's life and has many, many times. Annette does not subscribe to the pity-me approach in her pictures, oh no; she captures an image that sings, “I am special! Adopt me and I will make your life special, too!”

You merely need go to Annette's Facebook page or the page for Shelter Animal Advocates Aiken Foster Network and see a fiercely focused endeavor. Two friends and cohorts reorganized their rescue efforts last spring to save Annette after she lost her husband of more than 30 years and was buried in an avalanche of grief. 

As the weeks passed, December and Kenny Clark, owners of BarkMart in Graniteville, and Mary Lou Seymour, a passionate career rescuer, advocate and community organizer, needed their friend, Annette, back on the team. And back Annette came, born to rescue; and the team got to work.

“Dogs were dying in my county,” recalls December. “Too many dogs, dogs that people overlook. We wanted to give them a voice.” The team gives them more than a voice; they give them back to life, whole, healthy and ready for that precious second chance because of the foster-care network that they are building for no-kill rescues that pull county dogs.

Shelter Animal Advocates Aiken Foster Network builds life-saving bridges between animals in the Aiken County shelter who are unable or less likely to be adopted than the lucky few who find their way to the county shelter's “Adoption Floor,” and a network of rescue organizations dedicated to saving the tough cases.

These animals (mostly dogs) have either tested heartworm positive, have health or behavioral issues, are too old or too black (yes, there is a nationwide bias against black dogs and they are, therefore harder to place and die more often) and are more likely to be routinely euthanized or else their time has just run out in a high-kill shelter.

Last month 333 animals came into our Aiken County Animal Shelter; 63 percent died there, 23 percent were dogs and 40 percent were cats.
In November 2003, 316 animals came in and only 23 of them were adopted. In November 2008, 404 were received, 69 adopted and 361 were euthanized. In November 2012, 306 came in, and 229 (75 percent) were destroyed. 

What this tells us is that little has changed regarding intake in the past 11 Novembers, but a growing array of rescue efforts have made a big dent in what ought to be a shameful and unnecessary statistic.

Annette, December and Mary Lou are not only Shelter Animal Advocates, they are disciples of a movement that is quietly transforming shelter practices across the country, sponsored by the No Kill Advocacy Center ( 

At first glance, given traditional practices in “open” high-kill shelters typically run as a component of community “animal control,” the no-kill movement can appear radically idealistic; that is, until you look at the case facts across the country.

We even have some shining examples here in South Carolina, most notably in Spartanburg County where they have a “save rate” of 90 percent. That means they have virtually eliminated the routine killing of healthy dogs and cats in their county shelter.

How, you ask? The “10 Points of the No-Kill Equation” does a good job of summing up the road to success:

  1. Feral Cat Trap/Neuter/Release (TNR) Program 

  2. High-Volume, Low-Cost Spay/Neuter

  3. Rescue Group's Transfers

  4. Foster Care

  5. Comprehensive Adoption Programs 
      (including off-site adoptions)   
  6. Pet Retention Programs

  7. Medical and Behavior Prevention/
      Rehabilitation Programs 

  8. Public Relations/Community Involvement

  9. Volunteers

  10. Proactive Redemptions

With the efforts Aiken County Animal Services has begun in recent years, primarily through their partnership with Friends of the Animal Shelter Inc. (FOTAS), and the opening of the new County Animal Shelter next month, the time has never been better for the county to rally to the No-Kill challenge.

The team from Shelter Animal Advocates is doing their part and invites animal enthusiasts, and animal novices throughout the county to get involved. The support this group offers to those willing to provide guaranteed short-term (roughly two weeks) foster care is amazing.

“Our goal is to deliver healthy, socialized, highly adoptable dogs to our rescue partners. We follow ‘our dogs' closely when they leave our care, and only work with partner rescues who will update us on the dog's progress towards final adoption,” said Mary Lou.

The group provides everything you could think of to achieve the goal of matching great dogs with great homes: good quality food, vaccines and medicine, toys, leashes and collars, all treatments for parasites, training, 24/7 support, veterinary care, transportation and a support network. The foster volunteers get to choose the dog they will foster and become the guardian angel that stewards the lucky candidate to its new life.

Shelter Animal Advocates are leading the way for Aiken County to join Spartanburg and Greenville county shelters in the No Kill Nation. 

If you are an animal-lover, and you want a dose of real purpose in your life, they have made it very easy to become part of the transformation. For more information, call Mary Lou at the Aiken Foster Network hotline: 803- 275-0841 or email her at You will be on the right side of history. 

A retired organizational problem-solver and radical educator, Joya Jiménez DiStefano is an artist, Servant Leader, co-founder of FOTAS, and founder of PAWS, Inc.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Never Say We Can’t Save Them All

Aiken County Animal Advocates


(Palmetto Animal Welfare Services, Inc.)

By Joya DiStefano

Once upon a time in far away Zambia lived a girl immersed in the torrent of living things enveloping and invading the family farm.

Her childhood memories are of weaver birds nesting along the Zambezi River, her mother tending to the strange animals that appeared in her house and cheetah, monkeys, deer and always dogs.

The girl entered womanhood aware of, and bonded with, animals in ways few humans understand, much less experience.Her 20s found her in South Africa, where she studied, met Piers, her husband of 30 years, and where she became a dedicated animal advocate.

From circus animals working hot summers, to the cruelties of product testing, or to cleaning 15,000 oil-drenched penguins, the plight of animals consumed her.

She joined many volunteer rescue groups as she and her husband moved from South Africa to the Caribbean and ultimately to Aiken County, where the challenges of a public animal shelter that killed nine of every 10 animals that came through its doors defined her life.

“I feel I was born to be a rescuer,” Annette said in her soft pleasing accent that actually improves on the British. She was. No one can have 12 dogs of their own and still be pulling dogs and networking to find a ride to the nearest transport to save one more.

My husband and I met Annette Vanderwalt at her then rented farm beyond I-20 on Wire Road four years ago. We had been recruited to take a dog or two to Greenville to meet a transport going north the next day. It was on our way.

Annette mostly relied on Facebook to develop her network of supporters and opportunities for Aiken County Shelter animals. One only has to go to her Facebook page to see how she did it.Beware, if you are busy, the focus and passion can pull you in to the drama and trials of the rescue world she portrays. She takes stunningly beautiful photos of animals to improve the chances of survival for those in need.

You may find yourself with a new cat or dog, or networking your own connections to save another. And why not? What could be more rewarding?

Annette’s results were astounding. With one rescue out of New Hampshire she saved 500 dogs in two years plus another 100 to other rescues up north. Never say to Annette Vanderwalt, “We can’t save them all.” Her wrath is instantaneous. She does not think we can; she knows it. She can tell you place after place that is already doing it and a bunch more that are trying. That is her goal; these compatriots are her network.

Then a year ago tragedy struck. Annette had said her routine goodbye to Piers on Nov. 16.

He was a merchant marine, and she had grown used to his long absences. It was Piers’ job that made her rescue work possible.The phone call came on Christmas Eve. Piers died at sea off the coast of Indonesia. They had just bought their own farm.Annette is still working her way back through the searing grief and the shattered life.

She has help, like Maks the foundling pointer. Re-homed to New Hampshire to take some of the pressure off, Maks disappeared, only to be captured when Annette flew up to search for him.But it was Maks who knew exactly what kind of support Annette needed to get through Piers’s memorial service.

And it is her closest friends who knew what she needed to get through the rest of the days after his death, one by one:

They bugged Annette relentlessly when she dropped off the radar. They needed her energy. They needed her pictures. Annette needed rescuing and who better to do it?

It is a long way back and it has been rocky. Almost to the day, a year after Piers left home for the last time, their first “home dog,” as she calls her rescue clients, Chess passed away at 13. Chess had come off a dock in the Dominican Republic. Another piece of life with Piers was gone.

So what does Annette do to go on? She saves the heartworm-positive dogs at the shelter, the ones with zero chance at the adoption floor. She and her partners push social media to raise the money for treatment.

She rescues the black pit bulls. She puts the dogs whose time is running out in front of as many people who might care as she can and she saves them, one after another, again and again.If you want to know how it feels to be part of a community of love and hope, go to Annette Vanderwalt or “CSRA Shelter Animal Advocates: Aiken Foster Network” on Facebook, and find living proof of lives saved, and that sometimes even the rescuer is rescued.

A retired organizational problem-solver and radical educator, Joya Jiménez DiStefano is an artist, Servant Leader, and co-founder of FOTAS, Inc.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The County Vet Tech’s View

Aiken County Animal Advocates


(Palmetto Animal Welfare Services, Inc.)

By Joya DiStefano

“The one thing about this job,” she began, “is that you can never get up thinking you are going to the same old job.”

Sandy Larsen is a senior vet tech at the Aiken County Animal Shelter.

She may arrive at the gate early in the morning and find a box full of kittens or puppies or a dog tied to the fence.

The gate is on heavily trafficked Wire Road, where the speed limit is 55 mph. Sometimes the box is empty, or the leash chewed in half. Maybe the temperature dipped into the 20s that night. This is how a workday may begin.

Sandy remembers when the shelter was built and meant to hold 100 animals.
The number impounded at the shelter this October was 467; the previous October was 485, and the October before that was 491.

In the last 10 years, only October 2007 saw the intake number under 400 at 362.
Otherwise, the average for Octobers is 450 animals, the last three years being the highest of four in 10 years.

Intake is much higher from April to August.

What does a veterinary technician do in this environment? Nearly everything, except bring the animals to the County Shelter.

If Sandy’s week starts on Monday, she is up at o’dark-thirty to come and get the been-here-too-long-pet-of-the-week and take it on television.

She has not missed a Monday in years. Her spot airs at 6 a.m.

“Sometimes I have even brought that box of abandoned puppies or kittens to show what some people will do.”

At the shelter, first task daily is to check the dogs on “the adoption floor;” the current shelter does not actually have a separate wing like the new shelter will provide.

There is a wire gate separating the “5-day holds” from the adoptable animals, all sharing the same air, the same open drainage trenches, the same smells and sounds.

“We check the floor for kennel cough and diarrhea, and medicate accordingly,” said Sandy.
Next, the 5-day holds are reviewed so see who might be eligible to move up to the adoption floor on a space-available basis. These candidates will be checked for heartworm.

If positive, they are not eligible for adoption and will be euthanized if a rescue cannot be located who will take them.

If negative, they get wormed and shots and another chance at a good home.

The strays with mange, the cats with upper respiratory infections (URIs), the dogs disabled by age or injury find their final rest in the compassionate hands of a vet tech like Sandy.
The two county vet techs field calls from the foster families calling with health concerns for puppies or kittens in their care.

And before the county added a custodian position a year ago, they supervised the county inmates who work cleaning and feeding and dong the routine maintenance, if anything can be called routine in such an overcrowded, understaffed facility.

Three days a week, people who’ve adopted puppies and kittens bring their pets back to be spayed and neutered.

The vet techs assist the county vet with surgeries Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. They order and maintain records on all medications, for the sick, surgery and those being fostered.

They do paperwork for intake, adoptions, transfers and disposal. They help volunteers keep the Petfinder website up to date. And for 6.5 hours a day the doors are open to the public.

The dog-walker volunteers arrive and want to know who got adopted since they were last there.

“What happened to Jake, or Millie, this one, or that one? They know all the dogs so well,” Sandy said with appreciation.

Things have changed in Sandy Larsen’s world since Friends of the Animal Shelter helped establish the volunteer, foster and transfer programs beginning in 2009.

Referring to the recent adoption special for November, “Back-in-Black really helped with adoptions,” Sandy said.

A lot has changed for a shelter staff that saw only 265 animals re-homed out of 5,717 impounded in FY04.

In FY13, 1,581 animals were either adopted or transferred out of 4,794 impounded. Or put another way, in 2004 less than 5 percent of the impounded animals were saved; last year it was 33 percent.

Tired after another long day in another busy week, Sandy turned to a particular heartbreak.
Hard to bear that people will abandon helpless pets, unwanted and unnecessary puppies and kittens, but worst of all for Sandy are those who sacrifice their elderly pets saying, “I don’t like this dog anymore.” “I just don’t want it,” because it can’t do what it once could, because it doesn’t suit their needs.

“We live in a world where everything is so disposable,” Sandy says sadly thinking that, if she retires, she may give one or two of these seniors a very loving home.

Aiken County and our animals are blessed to have public servants like Sandy Larsen.

A retired organizational problem-solver and radical educator, Joya Jiménez DiStefano is an artist, Servant Leader, and co-founder of FOTAS, Inc.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How Wagener Led the County in Targeted Spay/Neuter

Aiken County Animal Advocates


(Palmetto Animal Welfare Services, Inc.)

By Joya DiStefano

Oh, Wagener area residents, you have no idea how proud you can be of what you have started here in Aiken County.  Let me tell you.

In the spring of 2012, a bunch of animal advocates got together and took advantage of an opportunity to compete to raise the most money of any other rescue group participating.  The contest was sponsored by an outfit called Pawmetto Lifeline in Columbia that had just opened a high-volume clinic, and it was out to spay or neuter any animal they could get their little scalpel on.  The Aiken County group won the contest and was rewarded with nearly $5,000 credit at the Pawmetto Lifeline clinic.  That money served to begin a targeted spay/neuter project that is gradually establishing itself in local communities throughout Aiken County.  Wagener was chosen to be the pilot project, and, with the tireless cooperation of Town Hall and local resident, Dottie Gantt, Wagener remains the most successful community-based spay/neuter assistance program going.

Why Spay or Neuter your pets?

Perhaps you don’t care all that much what happens to all the unwanted dogs and cats in your area.  As long as they don’t bother you, it should be someone else’s responsibility, right?  Then they are in your yard, in front of your truck, dying along the roads, converging on your bitch-in-heat, fighting with your male dog, howling through the night.  This is not a problem one can shoot his way out of.

Most people who have pets care about their welfare.  Most…  Your animals will be healthier, happier pets if they are spayed or neutered.  They will be content to remain home.  They will have way fewer incidences of cancer.  They will mark less, fight less, and mess in your house less.  You will find they are more loving, because they are less frustrated.  A male dog can sense a female in heat within a mile in every direction.  Unaltered, the poor animal has to function with a message screaming in their brain, I NEED TO BREED! By altering them, we eliminate that message and all the physical complications that go with it.
There are a bunch of old-wives tales about the negative effect of spaying or neutering your animals.  It is not true that your female will get fat and lazy.  Fat and lazy is due to too much bad food and not enough exercise.  If your dog hunts, it will still hunt.  If your dog is protective, it will still guard.  And, no, breeding your beloved pet will not give you a replacement copy.  Breeding your pet will put more breeding animals into an already over-populated environment.  And they can start young; dogs by 6 months and cats by four months.

How to Get ‘r Done!

The local Spay/Neuter Assistance Program has made it so easy to get your pets fixed, you just can’t put it off any longer.  Here’s how it works:

For Household Pets

  1. You go to the Wagener Town Hall and ask for an enrollment form.
  2. Fill it out your contact information and identify the dogs or cats you want to have fixed.
  3. Provide information regarding your income status/ number of animals you own.
  4. Leave the completed form at Town Hall

Based on the number of animals in the applications, a surgery date will be scheduled at the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare in Aiken.  If you want your animal(s) transported from Wagener, you will be told what day to bring it/them to the Wagener Gazebo on the morning of surgery.  The animals will be returned the following morning.  Arrangements can also be made for you to self-transport in either or both directions.  

The cost is $20 for each animal and includes rabies vaccine and a microchip.  
For more information call: (803) 634-0564

Lenny’s Brigade for “Community Cats”

 A community cat is an unowned cat that calls the outdoors home.  Community cat colonies develop where there is shelter and a food source.  Without assistance, they can often get out of control.  People, who like cats, take pity on the strays and feed them, often find themselves facing the painful situation of being overrun.  Lenny’s Brigade offers a humane approach; one that does not promote killing healthy cats; one that can help bring the situation back under control.  If you or someone you know is in such a plight, call the Lenny’s Brigade Hotline: (803) 507-6315.  Someone will get back to you and tell you how to proceed. 

People of the Aiken County East, you have led the way!  Let’s not stop now.  You have a solid core of animal advocates among you who can help you continue to show Aiken County the way!  Spay and Neuter your pets. Let’s put an end to unwanted litters, and the cost and heartbreak they bring.  Let’s do it together!

A retired organizational problem-solver and radical educator, Joya Jiménez DiStefano is an artist, writer, local Servant Leader, and co-founder of FOTAS, Inc. who lives with eleven dogs, one amazing cat and a husband who is a saint.

Change Happens in Small Bites

Aiken County Animal Advocates


(Palmetto Animal Welfare Services, Inc.)

By Joya DiStefano

This Aiken County Animal Advocates Columns was posted in the Aiken Standard on XXXX

When she first heard the plaintive cry she thought it might be a cat in distress.  The location in Hitchcock Woods made it seem unlikely, but the woman stopped.  The dogs did not seem to notice the cry. It may have been far enough off to be a bird in one of the tall pines in the distance. She walked on.

Two days later, travelling the same path behind her dogs, the cry came again, closer this time.  The dogs found him first, backed up against a small tree maybe twenty feet off the trail and hundreds of yards from any houses.  The black and white kitten was electrified with terror at the dogs’ curiosity; every hair was erect. Little white paws flared with claws extended, the feeble hiss was as ferocious as the tiny creature could make it.  The woman scooped the flailing kitten up.  Half way to her chest he gave up the fight and curled his emaciated body into her protective arms.  Days later he had a new home.

Same week, in another part of town, a lovely young bull terrier mix named Pandora had become such a nuisance to her owners that when a teenage youth went to return her to the yard where she easily and often cleared the fence, the owners said he could have her; they didn’t want her anymore.  The boy was delighted and took her back down the street to the modest rental where he lived.  His mom and big sister were terrified of the dog, but said that he could keep her. He set Pandora up with a bed in the shed behind the house.  Their fence was no better at confining Pandora than where she’d come from.  The very next day she cleared it and got into a fracas with a dog being leash-walked past the house.  The owner walking her dog got nicked attempting to break up the fight and called Public Safety. 

Pandora arrived at the Aiken County Shelter in the trunk, the boy’s mother being too afraid to have the dog inside the car while she drove. The youth carried the dog to the office wrapping his arms around her chest; her long body suspended nearly the length of his own. 

It was Saturday.  Two inmates and two employees were handling the calls, the public, and the volunteers.  A family with two young boys was delivering the mountain of dog food, blankets and toys, the older son had received from well-wishers for his seventh birthday.  They were accompanied by their neighbor who noticed that the delight of the two children, on their proud adventure, stood in sharp contrast to the youth, his worried mom, and little sister, waiting for the Animal Control Officer to arrive from the scene of the dogfight in their neighborhood.  The birthday boy’s neighbor asked the youth about the dog, now on a leash, which stood quietly beside him with intelligent interest cocking her head side to side.

He explained how he had come by the dog the day before and added shyly, “People afraid of pitt bulls because they say they mean, but they not. I like them.” 

The woman stooped down and Pandora gave her a couple of “Howdy!” licks on the face.  She decided right there to help the boy keep his dog if circumstances allowed. 

They did.  The complainant did not press charges.  DHEC said Pandora could be quarantined at the home for ten days.  All that was needed was a no-slip collar and a tie-out.  When the woman brought a box of training treats to go with the confinement provisions the young man’s face lit up. “That’s what I wanted!” he said with notable enthusiasm.  Why?  He wants to learn how to train his new friend.  Pandora may just have a chance at a bright future and she may help take her young master with her.

Pandora and the Hitchcock Woods kitten got lucky. But Pandora being a bull terrier, and the kitten being a kitten, had they been impounded would have stood almost zero chance of surviving, 98% for stray cats and not much better for pit bulls.  The problem of unwanted and poorly managed animals is enormous.  But we are a growing community dedicated to tackling it.  It is like they say; the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time!  

A retired organizational problem-solver and radical educator, Joya Jiménez DiStefano is an artist, Servant Leader, co-founder of FOTAS, and founder of PAWS, Inc.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

County Officer Gets the Message

Aiken County Animal Advocates


(Palmetto Animal Welfare Services, Inc.)

By Joya DiStefano

His first assignment involved picking up a half-dozen cats.  The area around the single-wide mobile home indicated young children in residence.  A small white dog barked in one window; a black and white cat sat looking out another.  A young man came out and helped load three adolescent cats and three kittens, all black and white, into the cages.  The one that got away was not that hard to catch.
“He says they were dropped off on his property,” Officer Miller said as he climbed into the truck.  Next calls were pick-ups: a cat in a county trap, then a puppy on a porch, both north of I-20.  Almost as an aside he said, “I brought in 33 animals last week,” adding, “That was just me.”

Officer Miller is one of four animal control officers working for Aiken County Animal Services.  These men, along with Chief Bobby Arthurs, cover all of nearly eleven-hundred square miles, including acting as occasional auxiliaries to the cities of North Augusta and Aiken.  Their primary responsibility is public safety, but as the public-private partnership between county government and Friends of the Animal Shelter, Inc. (FOTAS) developed, bringing more resources to an overextended staff,  the role of the animal control officer and shelter staff has been broadened while still upholding the public trust.
“You can be a dogcatcher or you can be an animal control officer,” Bobby Arthurs says he told the new officer last year during the ride-along as part of his training.  And Officer Patrick Miller must have gotten the message.

Last spring Officer Miller was instrumental in arranging private help for a family who had moved and needed a fence to confine their dogs, all spayed and neutered with current rabies vaccines.  On another case, a couple in very hard times, upgraded the care of their five dogs, got the rabies vaccines, and needed help getting dogs’ weight up.  Officer Miller arranged temporary food donations.  And that is not the only case. 

There were the six dogs in the Valley.  They were so thin that when the elderly woman, receiving her warning, took them to the vet for the rabies shot, the vet called Officer Miller to have him investigate the case.  “I try to work with people,” he said, and has been assisting with donated food to help fatten up the dogs.  He remained quiet a moment then said, “Where is the cut-off point?”  He meant the line between compassion and fostering an unsustainable dependency, a boundary that an animal advocate as public servant must confront, or anybody, for that matter.  He will find it, rest assured.

As we rode along the county roads, Patrick Miller talked about the job more than himself.  We picked up the big beautiful gray cat in the trap.  He talked about the emaciated horse that was in the road and no owner was ever found.  There was the Billy goat that kept getting out while the owner was out of town.  He and another officer caught the butting creature that, once captured, went meekly back to his pen, again.  When we came to the puppy on the porch, I asked if I could ride her on my lap.  He offered me a pad to separate me from the fleas.  I could feel her bones through the filthy fur.
Riding the animals back to the shelter, Patrick confides that sometimes he lets an obviously good dog, one whose owners can’t be located, ride shotgun with him for company before taking it to the shelter.  Patrick ruminates over a case involving multiple pit bulls. Throughout his involvement, the number and color of the dogs keeps changing.  Maybe the guy is selling them.  Yes, dog fighting is illegal in South Carolina, “But like everything else, you have to have proof,” he added.

At least the conditions provided those dogs have significantly improved.  In fact, Patrick makes routine rounds to places he calls “trouble spots.”  They have all improved.  And, in the month of September, 436 animals came into the county shelter; 252 were cats and 182 were dogs; 236 cats were euthanized (93%) and 87 dogs (48%).  Obviously, we need more animal advocates.