Thursday, July 24, 2014

One Animal Advocate: A Love Story

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 07/24/2014

“Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character…” - Schopenhauer 

I opened the door just a crack to keep my golden retriever Sunny from bounding through, and peered at the man on my doorstep.  He wore a navy blue hoody that had “Coach” embroidered above his name, jeans with leather piping down the seams, and Doc Martin oxfords.  He sported a burgundy Phillies ball cap, and an Errol Flynn mustache under thick large lenses in wireless frames.  He held a video cassette of highlights from his little league championship football team in his right hand.  He had advertised himself as “Financially and emotionally secure,” traits, as it turned out, that have come in very handy over the ensuing 21 years, especially the last five. 

Michael took me and Sunny to a park along the Potomac, and I took note that he did not complain about all the blond fur that coated the inside of his van, or the muddy paws on the seat.  By the time we combined households a couple of months later, I had heard enough tales of Stokely, the Black Lab who learned to wait at the curb for permission to cross the street even if a ball was tossed, and whose passing at 14 had left a hole in Michael’s heart too big to fill.  

I had always had at least two dogs and, as Sunny happened to be a lonely only at the time, it took a mere impulse to send me to the local pound looking for a Lab, preferably black.  Owing more to pity than passion, I came home with a dog we fittingly named Che, after the Argentinian revolutionary, a dog who would never wait for permission to cross the street or little else.  

Michael worked patiently with the six-month-old maniac until he would sit-and-stay, vibrating with the effort, then explode into motion once released.  Nine years later we cut a Caribbean holiday short to fly home to a dying Che.  It was the only time I ever saw my husband cry.

Ziggy Marley was my gift to Michael our first Christmas in Aiken eleven years ago.  Ziggy, the runt of an undersized litter retained the nickname “Tiny Boy,” in spite of the black giant he eventually became.  Not long after Ziggy’s arrival, we lost Sunny and I filled the vacancy with a yellow Lab puppy.  Then the rescues began.  

Our first I pulled from a pen where he’d been abandoned for months by the death of his owners.  “Don’t ask,” was all I said when I brought Walter home, and Michael didn’t.  When Walter’s new home only lasted 30 minutes, we kept him. He’d run off in the Woods, occasionally attacking submissive dogs, and we kept him.  Michael would stroke the kooky old black dog and croon, “Walter found a family.”

The summer of 2009, when we founded FOTAS, I held the titles of Treasurer and Secretary, but it was my husband Michael who entered and organized every financial transaction for the organization that would grow from a $2,700 fund-raiser to instigating, inspiring, and ultimately investing roughly half a million dollars in our new Aiken County Animal Shelter.  

The books were always balanced, the bills always paid.  Trained as an accountant, working as an auditor and project manager, moving over a thirty-five year career from paper ledgers to computerized personnel and accounting systems, Michael worked behind the scenes to lay the foundation of the organization without which today’s county shelter would not exist nor could it function.

Over the last ten years I have brought many more animals into the house: foster dogs, foster puppies, foster cats and kittens, baby rabbits, baby birds, baby possums and baby deer.  Most have moved on, but many dogs have come in frightful condition, been healed and loved and stayed.  

We have had cancer surgeries, a hip replacement, amputation, unrelenting pneumonia, two knee surgeries and another hip.  We have probably fostered 75 animals and only failed to save four.  

With each successive rescue effort, I knew that my mate much preferred a simple life without pens in the foyer and the constant odor of scented candles barely disguising the stink.  

Yet, late last winter we were driving a bully terrier to the transport van. Dolly Mama was supposed to have spent one night, but had ended up staying almost 7 weeks.  Heading into town, Michael was fretting and I was crying, when he said, “You want to keep her?”  I pulled the car over, made the call, and we did.

Dolly joined our over-sized family at about the same time that we incorporated PAWS, Palmetto Animal Welfare Services.  The PAWS mission is to get and keep animals out of shelters, primarily through SNYP, accessible affordable Spay/Neuter in partnership with the SPCA. 

But we also incorporated the programs Heartbeats and LEASH Squad that rescue last-chance county cases.  All of these programs have considerable expenses spread all over the map and, therefore, considerable fundraising requirements.

Michael consented to be the official PAWS treasurer.  As such, he is on a first-name basis with veterinary clinics and boarding facilities across the state.  He is learning to work with people who can only think of the life in their hands, often overlooking the billing gaps, double billings, fees and transaction records.  

Without flinching he loaned the organization the start-up funds it needed. He balances the books and reminds me that we need to promote this essential cause.

That first night over 21 years ago, Michael J. DiStefano asked me what it would take to win my heart.  I had never even wondered.  “I think it would be just the right combination of romance and adventure,” I replied. Now, each time I pull up our driveway I see the wooden sign he had made for me a couple of Christmases ago.  “Welcome to Bedlam,” it says, and I read, “I love you.”  

This spring for our 20th anniversary, I ordered the one below it. “Must Love Dogs,” it warns, but in Bedlam it means, “I love you, too.”

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, July 23, 2014

Leading Each Animal Safely Home (L.E.A.S.H.)

Aiken County Animal Advocates


(Palmetto Animal Welfare Services, Inc.)

By Joya DiStefano

This Aiken County Animal Advocates Columns was posted in the Wagener Monthly in July 2014

Last month we presented Lars as a “wild man,” and, although that is not a complete mischaracterization, as even Lars himself would admit, it is not the full picture either.  You can be sure that Mayor Mike saw it, too, when he offered to set Lars, his wife Jess, their three-year-old daughter, Savannah, and the rescue they had founded on property he owned. The audacity of Lars comes complete with its own magic, major and minor miracles, a lot of heart, and a whole lot of “likes” on Facebook (5,722, to be exact).  

So perhaps before we ask the local community to get involved, we should offer some background for the most recent cause that beckons.

L.E.A.S.H. is an acronym that stands for Leading Each Animal Safely Home.  The Swearingens founded the rescue two years ago this month on the notion that they were going to rescue straight at the source, the streets, and that their search-and-rescue missions would, in fact, result in lost dogs being returned to their loving homes.  The lucky beneficiary of their first day on the job was a turtle.  Pictures were taken, and the lucky reptile returned to Mama Nature.
It did not take long, however, for the calls to start coming in, but the need was not entirely what the young couple had imagined.  There were dogs full of puncture wounds, with rope burns on their neck, with mange covering their bodies, and dogs that looked like badly upholstered skeletons. Search and rescue was not about homes looking for their dogs, it was neglected, mistreated and abandoned animals looking for safety, security and eventually the home all dogs deserve. 

Within a couple of months L.E.A.S.H. incorporated as LEASH Squad and a few months later this newly minted rescue was called upon in for a mission it could not have imagined in the couple of months it had dedicated to even the worst cases from the “the streets.”

It began with the notice of a “Death Row Album,” 48 dogs with a literal deadline at a county facility two and a half hours east.  Lars knew that he could not accommodate 48 dogs, but he put out the call and the morning of the rescue operation Lars had 5 cars, 7 people and 17 crates. They would do what they could.  Then he got a call from someone willing to donate a barn full of box stalls. God must have been smiling on the plan, such as it was.

“What I didn’t realize at the time,” Lars recalls, “Is that the litters did not count as individual dogs. The moms counted; the puppies were extra.  There were actually 64 dogs.”  Off they went and then the call came from Danny & Ron’s Rescue in Camden.  They were sending their “dog bus” full of empty crates and complete with a driver. There was a reciprocal angel at the other end when the party arrived.  He had done everything he could to save as many dogs as he could and Lars honored the effort with the decision to take the lot, all of them.

The dog called Pat was a bite case on a ten-day hold. He could not go.  Lars does not know how Jess managed to lock herself in the kennel with Pat, who then proceeded to lick her face.  “We take them all, or we take none,” he said. By yet another miracle, they took all 67 dogs out of that facility that day, and named the outrageous adventure “Operation Phoenix Rising.”  The number of enabling miracles did not end there. 

There was a Paws for Freedom Rescue Convention the same day.  The caravan showed up at the convention and, and with the help of organizations like STAR, and Molly’s Militia 40 dogs went straight into foster homes.  The other 27 went to the farm.  Seven who are the hardest cases are still with Lars at L.E.A.S.H. 

It has been two very challenging years. Many, many more desperately needy dogs have come since the “Phoenix 67.” In the ensuing months Lars and Jess have demonstrated their gratitude to God and their commitment to this cause.  They have also learned a lot.  Lars admits that he is much better at playing well with others. He will be a great asset to the Wagener area.  L.E.A.S.H. needs and is worthy of your help.

PAWS, Inc. has incorporated LEASH as a program into is mission to “get and keep animals out of shelters.”  PAWS is a 501(c)(3) public charity and, as such we are asking for money, materials and manpower from vendors and members of the local community to help the LEASH Rescue get more effectively established.  Lars has a plan.  A concrete pad is most urgent.  Mayor Mike has Quonset tents that can be erected to keep the dogs dry now and then warm come winter.  We need perimeter fencing.

Wagener can be proud of the steps it is taking to join our local no-kill movement.  It leads the way in the county for spay/neuter assistance and Trap-Neuter-Return for the free-roaming cats.  Please help any of the following causes with your time or money:
   L.E.A.S.H. - (646-6204)
   PAWS at

·       Lenny’s Brigade:  Call Vicki: 640-0750 or Dottie: 564-5231

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.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Messages in Six Months of May

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 07/10/2014

Let’s face it; there is nothing sexy about preventing a problem.  You can’t look in the face of the kitten or puppy that was never born and heave a sigh of relief that you don’t have to be concerned about an unwanted life that never happened.  There are no heartrending pictures of the consequent neglect, or abandonment.  There are no pleading fur faces peering through cage wire.  I know this is true, because I watch the money roll in for the PAWS rescue programs that can press that emotion button over and over again and have people from all over the county, state, and country pressing PAWS donate buttons to save another lucky puppy or dog from certain death.  They deserve it.  It feels good to do something that essential to life. 

PAWS offers another way to feel good that can be illustrated in six months of May, May being the beginning of the “summer surge months” in national shelters and Aiken County Animal Shelter is no exception. There are three ways for an animal to be impounded: an officer picks it up, a citizen brings it in, or an owner gives it up.  There are three ways for an animal to get out alive: an owner picks it up (RTO), someone adopts it, or it is transferred to a 501(c)(3) rescue.  Everything else dies in the shelter. 

As reflected in the chart below, the numbers are coming down and it is very likely because PAWS and the SPCA are spaying or neutering everything we can get our hands on.  Since April alone, PAWS SNYP Program (Spay/Neuter Your Pet) has referred over 170 animals to the SPCA for surgery.  Since we began our joint effort, 136 surgeries have been funded meaning literally thousands of unwanted litters that will not happen in six more Mays.  But we can only continue with your help. Please contribute to PAWS-SNYP and here’s why:

According to county shelter data, this May there appears to be a huge change. Although live release has remained relatively steady for four consecutive years, since May of last year, the number of animals killed is down 63%.  Owner surrenders are down 30%, officer pick-ups are down 30% and total animals received is down 15%.  Even citizen drop-offs are down 10%. This is all in the first of the summer high intake months.

Five years ago this month, I had the privilege to incorporate Friends of the Animal Shelter, now well-known as FOTAS, and 2009 was also the year that I started accumulating data. Aiken County Animal Services and the miserably inadequate pound it operated was a huge problem.   Well over five-thousand cats and dogs were impounded annually and more than 9 out of 10 left in big black garbage bags. 

Once founded, FOTAS immediately went to work on the shelter population with volunteer recruitment, foster programs for puppies and kittens and a transfer program that sent many fortunate candidates north.  For the first three years all available energy went towards saving animals and raising money to help the county build an adequate county animal shelter. It wasn’t until the spring of 2012 that a big shelter fundraiser in Columbia offered a way for area rescues to earn spay/neuter funds.  FOTAS jumped on it.  

That summer a pilot program was launched in Wagener, logistically the best place from which to send animals to Columbia.  Wagener also was blessed with a committed mayor and great volunteers. When the Columbia funds were gone, the new SPCA’s high-volume clinic stepped in to help and the spay/neuter assistance program began to expand.  A year later FOTAS and I parted company and Palmetto Animal Welfare Services, Inc. (PAWS) was created to permanently eliminate the need for area shelters to kill companion animals because there are too many of them to accommodate.  Unwanted litter prevention is the heart of PAWS mission.

February 2014 the beautiful Aiken County Animal Shelter opened its doors. It is a facility in which we can all finally take pride.  It was designed to accommodate the problem the previous facility was inadequate to address; not to expand its intake capacity, nor its holding capacity.  Out of concern that the numbers might explode with the perception that the county was now in the animal warehousing business, I continued to track the data.  It was a delightful surprise to discover that the situation is actually beginning to improve.   

We are very proud of what we are accomplishing, and we cannot do it without your help.  We have no heart-wrenching photos of the absence of homeless pets for our SNYP Program.  What we can offer are the thousands of animals who will not have to die for lack of homes and lack of space.  Please help us by sending a check to PAWS – SNYP, P.O. Box 392 Aiken, 29802 or go to our website  We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit registered in South Carolina. Give what you can so we can do what we do.  God bless you for caring.

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.