We’ve all seen the heart-wrenching, Sarah McLachlan soundtracked spots for the ASPCA. We’ve all heard the horror stories of animal hoarders, inhumane puppy mills, and neglected pets left outdoors 24/7—on chains, in freezing weather. We’ve all thought to ourselves, “Those poor, poor animals. Someone should really do something to help them!” This month’s RichmondMom with a Mission IS doing something. Meet January’s RichmondMom with a Mission, Whitney Walters.
How would you describe what you do when it comes to animal advocacy here in RVA…and beyond?
Animal Advocate Whitney Walters
When you are in animal rescue and involved in animal welfare, you tend to be a jack-of-all-trades kind of person—it wouldn’t all fit on a business card! Simply put, I am an animal lover. I work hard to see that animals are loved and treated humanely. I also try and bring awareness to animal issues and find opportunities for people to get involved.
What were the catalysts that made you decide YOU personally needed to take action?
I started out volunteering few free weekends after college bathing dogs in an animal shelter to make them more adoptable. I was young, single, renting a townhouse and working a lot—not really ready to own a dog, but missing being around them. I truly believed they’d all find good homes. (Sadly, many didn’t.) When I got engaged, I told the shelter manager to let me know if they ever got in a Great Dane. Tired of waiting a month (!), I went out and bought a puppy. Two weeks later, she called me and said they got in a 2-year-old harlequin Dane whose owner moved and left him to die. I felt so guilty I didn’t wait, and now couldn’t help. I vowed then never to buy a dog again.
However, there was one specific moment: I was volunteering for a group in Beverly Hills, assisting with those Saturday adoptions stands just like you see here in Richmond—people camped out at local pet stores hoping a few dogs get adopted, and some donations come in so you can help another one. This particular day when the light bulb went off (more like when I ran my head right into it!), I was sitting in my office on the 21st floor in downtown LA. It was 5:20pm and the phone rang. It was the rescue asking if I could pick up a dog at one of the city shelters by 6pm. I’d never been to the shelters out there, but no problem; traffic may be bad but it was only a few blocks away. I rode the elevator down, got in my car and promptly got stuck at a red light. I called the rescue to tell them I might be a few minutes late. She told me if I got there at 6:01 the doors would be locked and the dog would be euthanized. I couldn’t believe that would happen, they had to know I was coming for the dog! Why would they euthanize a perfectly healthy, young adoptable dog? (I made it by 5:59pm thankfully, so it was a happy ending for this one!)
That one dog changed my world as he humbly hopped onto my passenger seat for his “Freedom Ride.” He may or may not have known how close he came, but he was grateful to be out of that place. As he laid his head on my lap when we drove away, I knew neither of us were looking back. We were both changed for the better.
Please tell us a bit about what you do…
My days start by going through about 300 email pleas of dogs and cats in overcrowded shelters peppered with some horses, pigs, and yes, an occasional chinchilla needing help. I make a list of those I think I can help, and begin attempts to raise money, find a foster, arrange vetting, locate transport, and find a rescue group to help adopt the animal. Some days, I call a friend and we go down to a local shelter, take photos of the animals and evaluate them. When I get home, I post them online and email them to rescues, fosters and potential adopters—then repeat the steps of finding funds, transport and fosters. If I have time, I work on finding grants, arranging fundraisers like a yard sale or setting up a fund campaign. One thing I love to do is speak to school-aged kids about adoption, spay/neuter, and animal welfare (Girl/Boy Scout groups, church groups and classrooms). Lastly (but probably the most important thing), I try and stay abreast of laws affecting animals, bills being considered, etc. as these have the capacity to help or hinder animal welfare the most. (Interesting source for current bills, laws, and how your congressman voted on animal welfare issues: http://hslf.typepad.com/)
What are the goals of the organizations with whom you work?
I have worked with the majority of the animal rescue groups in the Richmond vicinity…typically begging them for help with an animal I’ve seen in an animal control agency. Because the state of Virginia has about a 40% euthanasia rate, most are overworked and just finding good permanent homes for the ones they can help is daunting enough. One unique program, doesn’t focus as much on rescue but on community outreach. This small group of dedicated individuals builds fences for chained dogs, provides free or low cost spay/neuter, offers food, houses and straw for less fortunate dogs. There are also incredible everyday people that meet each weekend to overnite dogs coming out of pounds from GA, NC, SC and VA. Then they meet in the early morning in a parking lot, and a transporter drives them an hour north to another volunteer that drives another hour with a car full of dogs and puppies, and so on until they reach their final destination. It’s really emotional to be a part of these animals’ journeys.
What do you feel has been accomplished so far?
So much and yet so little. I get emails with happy pictures of dogs once about to die in a shelter with their new family, and all I did was take a picture and post online. Simple as that, and a life was saved. But there is a big—no huge—picture at which I’ve only chipped away. A woman I consider my mentor told me once that while I may not be able to see it in the decade or so I’ve been involved, she sees the issue is getting better. This gives me the will to get up and start again each day to make a difference in the lives of animals.
What makes you proudest personally about your affiliation with the various groups?
When you see people neglect, abuse, discard, or disregard the welfare of something you love so passionately—and believe have emotions and value—it’s hard to stay positive sometimes. I can honestly say the people in animal rescue are the most hard-working, inspiring and courageous individuals. They give all their time and money to what they love and they see the very beings they love in horrible predicaments or with impossible deadlines. They don’t sit idly by and hope someone else will take care of it, say “that’s such a shame” or thank someone else for doing it… they get their hands dirty and try. The more people in this, the more positive outcomes! I am proud to know people like this and work alongside them.
What’s next on-deck?
My ultimate goal would be to develop an army of volunteers willing to develop relationships with local animal control agencies. Changing the misconception that rescue dogs are “damaged goods” is the main way to do this…most are simply victims of human issues such as divorce, moving, landlords or financial reasons. Follow other states and make it a law that all impounded animals are photographed and made available to the public online upon intake—these volunteers would assist with that process. (Currently, not all animal control agencies list the impounded animals, or only list a few of them online) Owner reclaims and adoptions would increase, and rescue groups would know which animals needed assistance. Most people find it very surprising that some municipal shelters don’t list all the animals—and many people don’t know how to look up the statistics. Education and awareness is crucial. Lastly, in Los Angeles, rescue was the way to obtain a dog. Everyone took pride in the mixed-up DNA of their fuzzy family member. If it was a purebred rescue, they made sure to identify it with a collar or bandanna. I’d love for the trend to catch on here in Richmond—be proud you saved a life!
How does your family feel about what you are doing?
My husband has asked more than once why I can’t do this from 9-5. Calls come in at all hours, and the stress can invade our home and cause sleepless nights. Although he isn’t involved on a daily basis, he knows it’s important to me and is supportive, yet he also isn’t afraid to let me know when I’m too involved and make me take a fun day getting out and exploring Richmond. We’ve also met some amazing people thru this volunteer work—people like the Johnson family who love their pet pig, Tucker, and have gone before Chesterfield County to keep their family member. I wish everyone loved and cared for their pets like they do—then maybe I’d have some free time!
[Whitney, her son, Graham, and Tucker the Pig]
How can others get involved?
It’s so easy. My tag line is “Foster, Adopt, Donate” when I post a dog in need. I should add to that transport and volunteer! There are so many agencies that need help getting an animal to the vet, picking it up from the pound, helping make reference calls, organizing a fundraiser, developing marketing materials, updating the website, maintaining a Facebook page. Consider fostering. We can’t save lives if we have nowhere to put the dog or cat! Read about animal welfare issues and the laws. Go to your local animal control agency and take a look around. Some people ask how we can do it, and we wonder how can you not?
Whitney, we thank you so much for your commitment to this important cause…and for being a RichmondMom with a mission!