Twenty-five years ago, two women, Pat McQueen and the late Jane Brundage, angrily left an animal organization meeting. Disgruntled and disagreeing with what other local animal activists had said in the meeting, the two began speaking outside about their own beliefs on how to address the overpopulation of homeless dogs and cats in the Midlands. When the women realized they could start their own animal welfare organization, PETSinc was born.
For years after that fateful day, McQueen and Brundage worked tirelessly as volunteers. They took custody of homeless animals, which they then showcased at “rovings,” or public appearances at local businesses and community events. Eventually, the organization landed its own kennel and adoption center, and 25 years later, it sits proudly on thirteen acres of land at 300 Orchard Drive in West Columbia. The current PETSinc facility is far more expansive than its original conception, featuring multiple fenced-in dog parks, a walking trail, a cattery, two separate dog kennels, a grooming room, a veterinary clinic, a puppy play area, a training room, and office space.
“PETSinc has changed a lot from the days where we were set up outside of a wallpaper store or working out of an old construction trailer,” said the organization’s vice-president, Dana Vincent. “We owe this longevity to the dedicated volunteers and donors. Because of them, we’ve always been able to do so much for the community with so little.” With hardly any grant monies, the organization has always depended largely on private donors and the services of passionate volunteers.
An invaluable community resource
Vincent, the mentee of the late Brundage, said that one of the key roles of PETSinc now is to provide “an outlet for other rescues in the Midlands. If PETSinc wasn’t around, other rescues would collapse; their animals would have nowhere to go,” said the nonprofit leader. Since 2010, the organization’s veterinary clinic has provided spays, neuters, and other services for animal shelters in other South Carolina counties. Vincent is especially proud of the organization’s recent efforts during Hurricane Matthew, when they housed over 70 animals from a Pawleys Island shelter in need.
PETSinc’s outreach program expands far beyond their veterinary and boarding services. Their employees “talk to school and community groups about the massive overpopulation of animals in South Carolina, and the effect that has on the community,” said Vincent. “We’ve been talking more and more to young students. They’re the next generation of pet owners, so we want them to understand the importance of spaying and neutering pets, and also the basics of animal care. A lot of people don’t understand even the most common diseases for dogs and cats, and if left untreated, that’s often traumatic for the animal.” Vincent is proud of the fact that the organization has always “and will continue to provide [educational services] at no cost to the public.”
Longtime volunteer Christy Buchanan became involved with PETSinc over 22 years ago, when she worked with the Humane Society. They turned to PETSinc for education and training to improve their conditions and policies. “They were a great source, and even now, 23 years later, they’re still doing that and maintaining relationships with shelters in Fairfield County and other places,” said Buchanan.
Buchanan believes the amount of education that PETSinc provides the community about the importance of spaying and neutering pets is one of its best provisions. Over the last two decades, she has donated, fostered, adopted, and volunteered extensively for the organization. “I have a lot of praise for the volunteers and the staff there because they deal with so much,” she said. “They hear the problems when people are in distress, and they’ve seen animals at their worst. It’s a pretty incredible group of people who are able to do that on a day to day basis, to take injured and abandoned animals in and care for them.”
Training animals…and their owners
In recent years, the nonprofit’s educational outreach has also included dog training. With the addition of canine behavioral specialist and professional trainer Colonel Tom Kelly to the PETSinc staff, the organization now provides training to adopters, the general public, and its staff.
“My job is teach [the animals] how to make better choices, how to stay calm in the face of distraction, and how to have the behaviors and manners to exist happily in the human world,” said Kelly. In addition to individually training the pets housed at the shelter, Kelly has instilled puppy play groups and dog-on-dog socialization time to reduce hostility and aggression in the shelter dogs. He also provides group classes for volunteers, staff, and the general public. Pet owners can now call PETSinc for training behavioral assessments, private consultations, and classroom training in a group setting with other pet owners.
After years of seeing pet owners surrender their animals, Vincent realized that hiring a skilled trainer was necessary for the organization to fully achieve its mission. “A lot of animals come to PETS because of a lack of willingness of the owners to understand what the animal needs, so they just release it to us,” she explained.
According to Kelly, most often a dog’s behavior problems stem from miscommunication with humans. “We confuse excitement and over-arousal with a happy dog, but a happy dog is a calm dog,” he said. “We feed their bad behaviors if we’re always tasseling their fur and using a high pitched voice, and are then unable to train them…They’re not primates, and those behaviors we do, when we faun all over the dogs, are interpreted by the dogs as supplication and subordination. It undermines a dog’s ability to trust us. What I teach is to reward and reinforce calmness.”
Kelly uses nonverbal communication techniques to improve a canine’s behavior. “You have to use the right body language. Your attitude and the energy you project is how you communicate with a dog. If you’ll invest the time, you’ll see huge progress [in your pet’s behavior],” he said.
Sue Daidone has volunteered for PETSinc for 11 years and says that prior to Kelly being added to the staff, she noticed an unsettling reason why so many pets may have been surrendered to the shelter’s care. Daidone explained that many people overlook adopting senior dogs to get younger ones. “A puppy is a lot of work—you’ve got to be committed to the animal,” she explained. “You’ve really got to invest in them. A lot of people just get a puppy because they’re cute, but then act like they’re just a pair of shoes: ‘Okay, I’m bored now, I’m going to give it back.’”
With Kelly’s training program, PETSinc seeks to eliminate that problem of animals being returned or unwanted as they age. “Often, people want to surrender a dog because it’s behavior has become more than they can handle. It’s a problem of miscommunication, and they’ve reinforced bad behaviors,” Kelly said. “We now can offer them the opportunity to change the relationship they have with their pet.”
The heart of PETSinc
While training both pets and pet owners is a recently developed program for the shelter, one part of the PETSinc mission has remained constant. For twenty-five years, PETSinc has prided itself on being a no-kill shelter. Animals may come into the organization’s care for a variety of reasons, but they remain there until the shelter finds them a new home. “There’s an overpopulation of dogs and cats in the Midlands, and unfortunately a huge amount of people who abandon their pets,” Buchanan explained. “There are very few no-kill shelters in this state where the animals can go. PETSinc offers a safe respite for the animals, until they can get adopted again.”
PETSinc’s unwavering status as a no-kill shelter has attracted donors and volunteers for a long time. “In other shelters, animals are only given a certain amount of time,” explained passionate volunteer Daidone. “Here, they get the care they need until they find the right family.”
As they close out their twenty-fifth year of being open, the shelter hopes to be able to provide training and adoption services to more families than ever before. “People would be shocked if they knew how many people call us every day about a dog they found or can’t take care of anymore,” Vincent acknowledged. “There are so many reasons—maybe the owner died, maybe they lost their job or have been forced to move. Sometimes, people just can no longer take care of their pets, and rather than letting them get cast out on the street, PETSinc absorbs that responsibility. The key is, we’re still there after adoption. We will get you through whatever is wrong, if you need training tools, medical help, behavioral advice, we cover the full spectrum of pet care.”
One newer service for pet owners that the shelter has been able to form is a canine boarding service. Vincent said boarding at PETSinc is unlike other outlets because of “the care—they are constantly being cared for by people who have a lot of experience with animals.” Both staff and volunteers help with the organization’s boarding program.
Volunteers: Keeping the shelter open 25 years
Volunteerism has long been the key to PETSinc’s success. But according to Vincent, the volunteers often benefit just as much as the shelter does. She explained that schools, churches, community organizations, special needs groups, and homes for the elderly utilize volunteering at PETSinc for team-building and socializing activities.
There are a variety of ways in which people can volunteer for the shelter. Assistance is greatly needed maintaining the nonprofit’s kennels, cattery, dog parks and walking trails. PETSinc invites the public to help provide care for the animals.
Since 2014, the organization has maintained a program for volunteers called Barkin’ Buddies, which was modeled after the concept of Big Brother/Big Sister and seeks to prepare “unadoptable” animals for adoption. Some animals in the Barkin’ Buddies program are especially timid and meek; some are hyperactive and anxious. Based on the goals of rehabilitating and rehoming, these animals are matched with volunteers, who visit the animal multiple times a week, taking it for walks and providing healthy human interaction until the pets are ready to be adopted.
“We realized it’s not enough to find a dog a home—you have the find the right dog the right home, and match the human’s desires with the dog’s unique needs,” Kelly explained. “This is the only way to reduce the likelihood of that dog coming and going out of the shelter like a ping pong ball, and finally finding its forever home.”
While some volunteers become Barkin’ Buddies, some help in the front office, and some work rovings and other events, Daidone often finds herself doing menial tasks like bathing animals, cleaning the adoption center, or going to the store for supplies, but she does not mind doing these tasks. “They have limited funds, so if I can do some of these things to free up the adoption counselors and other staff so they can do their jobs, I’m happy to do it,” she explained. “In my opinion, the animals give back just as much as we give to them. When I take dogs on walks, I always thank them and say a prayer. It gets me outside and exercising, too.”
Other long-time volunteers like Buchanan also find immense personal enjoyment out of helping the shelter. She fosters special needs pets at her own home, but also visits the shelter to walk and interact with the animals. “Sometimes you end up working with a dog that is afraid to look up at you or make eye contact with you,” she admitted. “But then the first time you see that dog take a toy, run around, and bring it to you, it is a very gratifying feeling. You’re getting these animals to the next level, making them adoptable.”
Looking to the future
Currently, Vincent’s goal for the nonprofit is to expand their veterinary clinic, including hiring a new full-time veterinarian and other vet employees. Providing low-cost vaccinations and spay and neuter services to the public has been one of PETSinc’s main priorities for several years, but Vincent hopes to see their clinic become a full-service clinic for the shelter, adopters, and the general public. These services are why volunteers like Daidone recognize how crucial PETSinc is for the Midlands.
“PETSinc is really important to the community,” Daidone explained. “There’s a great need here to educate people about animal care, which is why it’s so great they’re going around and talking to kids in schools…PETS takes in animals when no one else wants to. It’s more than just giving them food, water, and shelter like people think; they also provide the medical care, they register them with a microchip, and now they have Colonel Tom there giving them behavioral lessons. It’s vital—there’s definitely a need, and PETS saves lives.”
To celebrate the last two and a half decades of work and to raise money to expand their veterinary clinic and finish building a new dog kennel,
the organization is hosting a 25th Anniversary Gala from 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1. Event sponsorships are still available; both businesses and individuals can make donations to have rooms at the shelter dedicated at the gala in their name with engraved plaques.
The 25th Anniversary Gala will have a 1990s theme, as a tribute to the decade in which they were founded. Costumes are encouraged, and the catered gala will feature live music from Phonic Café, a ’90s themed photo booth, and a silent auction.
For Vincent, the 25th anniversary of PETSinc marks a major victory for the nonprofit. “It’s a huge milestone,” she said. “In the last 25 years, we’ve rescued and rehomed over 80,000 animals…We hope people really get into this and dress up in ’90s clothes and come celebrate with us. We’re having ’90s trivia and games. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Volunteers are also preparing for the event and hoping that the general public will join them. “Good work needs to be celebrated,” said Buchanan. “The staff and the volunteers need to celebrate all the incredible things that they’ve done, and the community needs to celebrate the accomplishments that PETS has been able to do for them. It’s a benchmark to look forward to the next 25 years.”
PETSinc asks for a $50 donation per gala guest. To purchase a ticket or make a donation, visit www.petsinc.org/tickets.