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.