December 23, 2013


I've developed a new habit, or maybe twitch? Tic? Gesture? My left hand sneaks up, fingers fully outstretched, to cover my heart, and then I tap it twice.

The subconscious initiation of the whole hand, finger outstretched, heart tapping thing coincided with an even greater outpouring of support for Angels of Assisi this holiday season. There are people who put up Angel trees all over town, and others who bought items for the pets listed. Some fostered our homeless animals, giving them an extra measure of TLC. Many sponsored adoption fees, with the hopes of getting more pets into homes for the holidays, and that program has been so successful (18 adoptions today alone) that we were able to take in 12 new dogs and several cats. 

A group from Carilion fund-raised for us by making a seriously awesome gingerbread house, and got money with each vote in the gingerbread house competition. The post office workers gathered a tremendous amount of food, litter, and treats for the animals. Restaurants and stores alike keep sending us overflowing donation boxes, and kindhearted people keep hauling them in. There were the folks who, horrified by the state of our food and supply closet, put their organizing skills to use. We had no idea that this oddball space had so much potential, but they sure fixed it up right, and just in time.

Kids have come out of the woodwork with wonderful letters and pictures. A local company has kept us in ample supply of brand new dog beds that are sent home with adoptions. Monetary donations to the Biscuit Fund, Spay and Neuter Clinic, and Adoption Center have been made with great compassion from all over the country.

Volunteers give tirelessly of their time and energy, walking dogs, cleaning cats, sweeping, mopping, and putting up the donations. We work them really hard, yet they keep coming back.

The energy of 415 Campbell is truly remarkable, and it is contagious. I was at the store earlier today, and a lady came up and asked if I was Lisa? Lisa O'Neill?!? From Angels of Assisi?!?!?  As I confirmed, she very kindly and wholeheartedly said how much she loves the work that everyone does, and she watches your stories, and it makes her days better.  

With all of this going on, we keep trying to portray our appreciation. Thank you, and another thank you, and- wow, look what just arrived at our door, in the mail, on-line- thank you again. The hand on heart tapping came about because words don't always express properly what is felt- a heart swelling, deep breath and hold it for an extra second gratitude because you all love the animals in our community just as much as we do. 

In return, we promise to keep diligent about making life better and better not only for the animals, but for the people who love them so. You all have been amazing,
you are making a real difference, and we love you for it. Tap tap.

December 17, 2013

Kids Just Keep Doing Good

Years ago, poverty, crime and drug trading characterized the West End and Hurt Park neighborhoods in Roanoke. Vacant lots, abandoned buildings and rental property were widespread. At that time, a number of children were wandering the streets without supervision and there was an increase in vandalism. In response to these circumstances, West End Presbyterian Church, West End Methodist Church and the Mountain View Neighborhood Alliance formed a coalition to establish the West End Center as a safe haven for the neighborhood children.

Since that time, the West End Center has experienced tremendous growth, both in the number of children served and the available programs and services.

We got a visit from two of their teachers today, and they came bearing gifts of the very best kind- thoughtful, handwritten words of appreciation bundled up in a large white envelope.

Since the kids cannot come to our building, we are heading to theirs very soon to talk about pets, people, and enlist their help for a new program, Pets for Life, aimed at bringing Veterinary services to underserved neighborhoods. Somehow, we have a feeling that these kids are going to make all the difference in the world to some very deserving folks.

December 16, 2013

Heart Biscuits

The broken ones need someone to fight for them even harder.
- Carrie Ryan

Pearl and Six arrived at Angels of Assisi last week, after much collaboration between the good people at Vinton Veterinary hospital, Vinton Animal Control, and concerned family members. We're calling them Biscuits, even though, outwardly, they are in good shape. They have been fed well, and have no signs of physical neglect or abuse.

The haunting sadness about these two is that their wounds are on the inside. For years they were locked in a house with little to no socialization. No dog parks, no walks, and rarely let outside to even use the bathroom. Their owner had some pretty big demons of her own, and her dogs suffered along with her.

Some say that the inner hurt due to mental and emotional abuse is the worst possible kind, and nothing is as deafening quiet as a heart shattering in the place one needs to feel most safe - at home.

Pearl and Six have had their fair share of heartache, and that is about to change. Their muzzles may be gray, but we're determined to teach these old dogs some new tricks, starting with human touch and kindness. In a way, we need to start over and give them a head's up on what it is like to actually be a true companion, a well mannered member of the family, and a trusting friend. Fortunately, judging from the pleading look in their eyes, they seem more than ready to meet us halfway.

Every Little Thing Gonna Be All Right

This note accompanied a cat carrier found on our doorstep yesterday morning. The kitty inside had blankets and was well cared for, and our hope is that her owners will have a piece of mind about her, and now take care of themselves. Wherever you are, we wish you well.

Taking care of yourself is one of the hardest jobs -
don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
It's much easier to take care of others.
- Charity Shumway

December 14, 2013

One Thousand Words

The holiday season always brings a rush of activity for staff and volunteers with events and extra activities. Last night was no exception, and the prep work and coordination needed to participate in the Roanoke Christmas parade is great. As usual, everyone jumped in and then settled into our now familiar, controlled chaos. And, as usual, we were very well aware and appreciative of the tremendous amount of work that our little old Assisi family tackled and knocked out.

Vehicles were picked up, float was decorated, people and dogs decked out for the occasion and on time for the starting line- up. Off we went, surrounded by roaring motorcycles, flashing lights, blaring music, and kids jumping out of the crowd to pet the dogs.

During it all, the overriding proud moment after moment was how well our shelter dogs handled their night out on the town. Not only did they walk very nicely on leash, but they were focused on their human, and when we stopped, they would also stop and then sit, waiting patiently. Considering the fact that almost every dog we had at the parade was either from our Roanoke pound or prevented from entering the pound, they have come a long way. We attribute it to our evolving shelter enrichment program, giving the adoption center dogs a variety of the things they need- training, walks, play time, quiet time, toys, beds, and most of all, human interaction, with the goal of making them more adoptable. Bobbie Wiggins, our dog trainer, and her army of volunteers have done a tremendous job with the canines entrusted into our care.

The imagine above detects more than a cute dog at a parade who is available for adoption. It portrays the dedication and love of a community for our homeless animals, and it is a powerful one. Well done.

December 13, 2013

Kids Doing Good

It's been a humbling year with such an outpouring of community support, and reason number 125,874,385 walked through our doors this afternoon.

Meet Connor, a 9 year old artist, who raised $100 by selling his artwork for $.50 each. He took his earnings and went shopping and brought the adoption center animals all kinds of good stuff.

Conner, you rock. From the bottom of our hearts, to all of those who joyfully give your talents and gifts so generously, thank you.


December 11, 2013

Puppies Without Windows

Last month, Angels of Assisi acquired 50+ dogs from a breeder. The first part of the group arrived on a Saturday night, scared but with no glaring health issues- it was safe to say that, physically, they weren't that bad. We put them into awaiting cages in our clinic, away from the hubbub of the adoption center. As minutes turned into hours, I remember thinking how eerily quiet theses small, typically yappy, dogs were.

More arrived the next day, again with no in our face signs of cruelty or neglect. Sure, most needed dental cleanings, some had matted fur, some needed toenail trims, but overall they were OK.

Negotiations with the breeder continued, and I went to her house for the next pickup. It was tucked way back from the main road, and was a typical, nondescript house. There were no lines of rabbit cage-like structures with frozen water bowls housing filthy dogs out back. There was a porch with a  few chairs and potted plants out front. It could have been any house in any neighborhood in any part of the USA. Until she opened the garage.

As the big door opened, sunlight filtered in and the visual impact of cage after cage came across me in waves. The Everyday American House was housing an awful lot of dogs, all tucked away into the nondescript garage. Waist high workbenches filled the space in a U shape, with piles upon piles of newspapers underneath. The handmade wooden workbenches were holding wire crates pressed side to side and stacked on top of each other.

Small breed dogs filled the small wire crates- they had enough room to turn around in, and thus considered adequate by law. The food and water bowls were as clean as could be expected, and many of the dogs had blankets or towels in the crate. Again, nothing illegal to see here.

What was blatantly obvious was the desperation of the dogs for some type of human interaction, some demonstrated it with tiny paws clawing at the front of their crates, some with pleading eyes as they cowered in the backs of their crates. The breeder went cage by cage "You can have this one" "No, I want to try and sell this one" "This one... maybe. I might be able to sell it. Let me try".

As we made our way around the loop of the U shaped workbench that these dogs called home, one was at the very end, an older, white poodle crouched down in his tiny living area trembling as his eyes locked on mine. I am not a huge dog expert, but would bet money that if I had been allowed to pick him up he would be the kind that would melt into you and be eternally grateful for any type of attention. "What about him" I asked. "Him? No way. I love that dog and will never let him go".

She loved this dog so much, that she would not allow him to leave the windowless garage and be adopted to a loving family. She loved him so much that she sealed his fate to live the rest of his life as part of an operation that could never give him something not covered by law- human touch, love, and the ability to live outside of a crate.

We left without the dog in the tiny corner crate, and many others like him. Legally, they belonged to the breeder. There were more in the house that we were not allowed to see. No one knows how many.

The dogs that did come with us have the same desire to be loved, but have a hard time figuring out what to do with it; they are nervous and unsure of themselves in a home, probably because that part of their brain never ever had the proper exposure. Fortunately, they are starting to get the hang of it.

Many of the puppies we received are physically put together wrong, due to bad breeding (we know that some of the females got pregnant from the males in crates next to them, demonstrating how close the crates were piled next to each other). Some of the puppies had seizures, and too many died after birth.

The message of this post is not to criticize the animals welfare laws in Virginia (we have some of the best in the nation), and it is not to bash all breeders.

Our request to you is to stop supporting the backyard breeders who are in it to make a quick buck- the ones who sell at pet stores, Craig's list, and on-line. If, as a community, we stop buying these animals, the people responsible for breeding them will also have to stop. Will we lose some breeding animals and unsold babies in the process? Yes. But they will pave the way for the thousands of animals who could come behind them. The nondescript houses, garages, sheds, and barns could potentially be empty one day if we make a stand.

Instead, please consider adopting. There are numerous places to adopt wonderful animals in our community: Angels of Assisi, the Regional Center for Animal Control and Protection, Roanoke Valley SPCA, League for Animal Protection, and the Franklin County Humane Society, along with other breed specific rescues.

If you really want that purebred animal, we understand. Check your shelters first, and there is also the ability to expand your search with a website called Petfinder. Otherwise, please take the time to find a reputable breeder. In essence, they have very similar characteristics to a good rescue- their facility has an open door policy, spay/neuter contracts, and a guarantee that they will take the animal back if you cannot keep him or her.

Here are some guidelines provided by the Humane Society of Unites States.

- Allows you to visit and willingly shows you all areas where puppies and breeding dogs spend their time. Those areas are clean, spacious, and well-maintained.

- Has dogs who appear lively, clean, and healthy, and don’t shy away from visitors.

- Keeps their breeding dogs as you feel a responsible person would keep their pets: not overpopulated, crowded, dirty, or continually confined to cages.

- Keeps their dogs in roomy spaces that meet the needs of their particular breed; for example, most small breeds will be housed in the home, sporting breeds will have plenty of space for exercise, etc.

- Breeds only one or a few types of dogs and is knowledgeable about the breeds and their special requirements.

- Doesn’t always have puppies available but may keep a list of interested people for the next available litter or refer people to other responsible breeders or breed clubs.

- Meets psychological, as well as physical, needs of their dogs by providing toys, socialization, exercise, and enrichment as befits the specific breed.

- Encourages you to spend time with the puppy’s parents—at a minimum, the pup’s mother—when you visit.

- Has a strong relationship with one or more local veterinarians and shows you individual records of veterinary visits for your puppy.

- Explains in detail the potential genetic and developmental problems inherent to the breed and provides documentation that the puppy’s parents and grandparents have been professionally evaluated in an effort to breed those problems out of their puppies. (This will include testing for genetic diseases for which there are valid testing protocols available).

- Offers guidance for the care and training of your puppy and is available for assistance after you take your puppy home.

- Provides references from other families who have previously purchased one of their puppies.

- Sells puppies only to people he/she has met in person, not to pet stores or to unknown buyers over the Internet.

- Encourages multiple visits and wants your entire family to meet the puppy.

- Provides you with a written contract and health guarantee and allows plenty of time for you to read it thoroughly.

- Sign a contract that you will spay or neuter the dog unless you will be actively showing him or her.

- Sign a contract stating that you will return the dog to the breeder should you be unable to keep the dog at any point in the dog’s life.

Is it odd that a rescue group would be giving advice on buying a puppy from a breeder? In the big picture, maybe not. Think of the powerful force that reputable rescues and reputable breeders could make against backyard breeders if we joined forces, and count Angels of Assisi in. You as the community can fill in the last piece of the puzzle by not supporting anyone who does not meet this criteria. It's sadly too late for many of the dogs living in the garages right now, and the face of the one in the corner will always haunt me. Yet at the same time, let's use him for an inspiration to work together to stop this from happening to others, like Joe, who is one of the lucky ones. 

Business, to be successful, must be based on science,
for demand and supply are matters of mathematics, not guesswork. 

-Elbert Hubbard

December 8, 2013

A Day In The Life

Don't let the exterior of this little building in Atlanta, Georgia fool you. It may be plain on the outside, but the inside is full of great energy and state of the art thinking. Pets for Life, an HSUS program, is stationed here, with the goal of bringing spay/neuter along with other pet services to the folks in this underserved neighborhood. There are no big box stores here, no major chain grocery stores, and no veterinary clinics. There are neighborhood convenience stores, lots of people, and lots of dogs and cats. Lots and lots of dogs and cats.

Although the HSUS building is home base for the Pets for Life program, you won't find the employees there very often. They spend their days out and about in the streets, giving away free spay/neuter services and ways to improve the quality of life for both pets and people.

I was lucky enough to join them yesterday, along with folks from Memphis, Dallas, and San Antonio. We broke into small groups, and headed out. With HSUS veteran Rachel leading the way, our first stop was at an apartment complex. Her "usual customers" were not home, but soon enough she spotted a dog new to the complex and not in the Pets for Life system.

We knocked heartily on the door, announced why we were there, and were welcomed into the apartment. It was dark inside and the 3 guys in their 20's were just getting up- one was still in boxer shorts, one halfway dressed, and one sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

They told us that they were planning to breed her, and Rachael plopped herself on the floor next to the guy on the mattress and spoke to them like they were old friends. She told the usual reasons why they should not do so, and then she pulled out a laminated sheet of all the pit bulls at the Atlanta pound who would most likely be killed.

Shoulders visibly lowered, minds started wrapping around the big picture, and hearts softened. Guy Number 2 rolled over from the mattress on the floor he was sleeping on, and said "I vote to spay her". The rest was easy- a voucher was given for free spay, vaccinations, and microchip, with an appointment for the next Tuesday. Diamond's owners will get a reminder call on Monday, and a follow up call after her surgery. The best part? Diamond will be a member of the Pets for Life family and have available medical resources, and her owners will have a positive experience and will be more likely to form a lifelong bond with her. She will be healthier, and so will they.

Our next stop was a few streets over, and it was my turn to knock on the door. I gave it two shots and soon a little lady peeped through the curtains in the window. She shook her head "no no" until we added "usted habla espaƱol?"  She smiled, "Ahh- si" and came out of the house holding a cute, fluffy white dog. She was completely on board with neutering him, and soon her daughter came out of the house holding a tiny Chihuahua "puede conseguir hecho demasiado (can he get done too)?

The answer, of course, was yes.

Just about every house on the street had animals, and in an hour, we signed up four more dogs, including the Chihuahua's sister who lived 2 doors up. Her owner's name was Victor, and although a bit skeptical at first, we ended up friends, and Rachael will see to it that his dog has her spay surgery this Tuesday.

Data shows that increasing access and removing cost barriers to animal care and veterinary services for pet owners in underserved areas will improve community animal health and reduce shelter overpopulation. What we have learned:

More than half—53 percent—of the owners of unaltered pets surveyed had never seen a veterinarian before. There is a growing gap between underserved pet owners and veterinary service providers and this has severe consequences for companion animal overpopulation and overall health.

The vast majority, 87 percent, of attendees at Pets for Life events had never contacted their local animal control or animal shelter organization for any reason. It is critical for leaders in the animal welfare field to recognize the unmet needs in their communities and the impact on companion animal health and overpopulation.

Meeting people in the neighborhoods where they live, and marketing services strategically using canvassing and community organizing techniques, is much more effective than traditional advertising in reaching owners of unaltered pets in underserved communities. Adequate follow-up is critical to build relationships and ensure that animal veterinary needs are met.

At Angels of Assisi, we recognize that pets cross all social and economic barriers, and we're gearing up to help. Stay tuned!

December 7, 2013

Pets for Life

Quote of the Day from the Pets for Life training session in Atlanta:

When you see a dog tied to a tree suffering, it does not necessarily mean the human is in the house plotting on ways to make the dog suffer. The human in the house is probably suffering as well. Imagine being able to give that human the knowledge and resources to make the dog's life better. The dog may not end up sleeping on the human's bed every night, because, in reality, the human may not have a bed either. 

December 5, 2013

Bringing Home The Information

I am heading out to Atlanta, Georgia this morning for a training session on  Pets for Life, a groundbreaking program founded by the Humane Society of the United States. Angels of Assisi was granted one of eight new Pets for Life mentorship opportunities, joining eleven established programs nationwide.

The gist of Pets for Life is to make pet care available for underserved families- partly to reduce the number of animals entering pounds, and partly to enrich the lives of these pets and the people who truly care about them.

It's an honor to be a part of this HSUS division, and I will be joining with folks from San Antonio, Memphis, Jacksonville, and across the country for the next few days to learn, network, and then bring it all back home to Roanoke.

This trip will evolve into a new service provided by Angels of Assisi, and it's dedicated to the neglected dogs living on chains and to the invisible cats who are confined and then killed at our local pound- we want a better life for them.

More than that, it's for the folks who love their pets and try hard to provide for them - from the gentleman who walks to Angels of Assisi and very politely and graciously picks up dog food from our food pantry every few days, to the folks who use our low cost clinic and diligently make monthly payments to cover the cost. We want to make pet care more accessible for everyone, and this is another step in making that happen.

I find that I run out of ways to say thank you to all who work side by side with us, day in and day out, but know that, from the heart, you all are truly valued and appreciated. We're looking forward to taking it up a notch, and know that we can with you behind us. See you all in a few days-


December 2, 2013


This past year, while Angels of Assisi developed several programs aimed at pet retention, another wonderful agency in our community has made great strides in their mission to help senior citizens remain safely at home with innovative resources promoting independence.

It seems natural that our two missions, one for the welfare of pets, one for people, would intertwine, and we are pleased to announce a new partnership with Kissito Pace. Molly was one of the first pets to benefit. She and her two feline friends stayed at Angels of Assisi for a few days, and received a medical exam, wellness update, and a grooming for good measure. Her owners recently settled into their very own apartment, and we were pleased to send their beloved pets home with a clean health check, big new bed, and toys.

If the day comes when Molly's owners cannot care for her, we'll be here to help then as well. Meanwhile, the beloved family remains together, with community resources to help keep them safe and sound. And that, friends, is what it is all about.