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Chamber Awards: VFA earns special recognition in its 40th year caring for animals

By Joanne Beck
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Members of Volunteers For Animals gather at Genesee County Animal Shelter in Batavia. 
Photo by Howard Owens

There they were: a dozen frightened, skinny, matted, shaking dogs — mostly poodles or poodle mixes — desperate for food, medical care, flea treatment, and, most of all, a loving and safe home.

Lucky for them, they were rescued by Genesee County dog control officers and delivered into the caring arms of Volunteers For Animals. From that moment on, those little guys and gals received much-needed baths and grooming, veterinary attention, dental work, and one by one — or in some cases, two by two — they were adopted to forever homes. 

It would be nice, perhaps, to think that this was an isolated case of animal neglect or abuse; however, there are many more stories. And for each one that volunteers share, they also share a smile when it ends in adoption. 

“It’s the happiest thing ever to see one walk out the door, and when the right family comes along, we say ‘yay, they got adopted,” VFA member Marcy Colantonio says.

Colantonio feels so strongly about the nonprofit that, in addition to being a member for the last seven years, she nominated the group for the Chamber of Commerce Special Anniversary Recognition of the Year Award.

“I think we do so much for the community and for the cats and the dogs. You know, this isn't home. And they need people to speak for them to help them find the right homes and the perfect homes for them. They don't need to be sitting in a kennel or in a cage, and I just like to promote this,” she said. “All we do, we take care of them, make sure they have a good life here, but it's not the best life. Ideally, they all need homes. So that's why I'm here, to help them find the perfect place for them.”

In 1984, there was an eager and active group of caring individuals who wanted to help four-legged creatures, and so it formed a nonprofit that, as the name implied, was truly about Volunteers For Animals. 

Those volunteers began at the modest — and often described as sad — shelter on Mill Street on the south side of Batavia until a new one was built in 2001. Ever since that first day, they have been cleaning cages, doing laundry, washing dishes, feeding cats and dogs, ensuring they get proper medical treatment and tests, and taking the pups out for regular walks, greeting and screening prospective adopters and — the most gratifying job of all: watching temporary shelter guests go home with their new families.

In more recent years, VFA has focused on fundraising for a strong spay and neuter program so that animals don’t reproduce and potentially create more unwanted innocent offspring. But all of this seems so clinical compared to what actually goes on at the shelter on Route 5 in the town of Batavia.

Amidst the feedings and tests and medical treatments — all valid in their own right — are the dozens, or hundreds, of stories, the tears, the smiles, the laughter, the compassion of people, pulling for an animal’s victory from abuse, abandonment, neglect, and putting in tireless effort, whether it’s to provide hands-on care, map out successful fundraisers or promote the nonprofit and shelter occupants. 

Colantonio joined for a reason familiar to most others: because she had a heart for the work.

“I wanted to do something for the animals, I knew someone who always shared good things about Volunteers For Animals and she said give it a try,” Colantonio said inside the adoption visit room at the shelter. “I fell in love with it.”

She has adopted a beagle and cat from the site, and as she and fellow volunteers Angie Knisley and Wendy Castleman began to think of rescue stories, the names just rolled off their tongues. 

There was Gigi, a white pitbull mix who had been at the shelter for 300 days and went through the Pathways to Home program, Ricky the cat, who was very sweet and landed a wonderful home eventually, Brad Pit, who was involved in an unfortunate long-term court case who had to remain at the shelter until the case was resolved, and was adopted once it was over. 

And Ruffles, a pretty tiger cat, who came in as a stray with a bad uterine infection. 

“Within days, you could tell she was feeling much better,” Castleman said. “She would’ve died on the street. She simply needed to be spayed.” 

Colantonio and Knisley waved and smiled as Ruffles and her new pet parent said goodbye and left the shelter. 

Castleman, who has been a member for two decades, said that VFA used to be mostly focused on the shelter itself and has expanded outward into the community, with a satellite location for cats at PetCo, a low-cost spay and neuter program, and the Path to Homes program, which began in 2018, with selected dogs being placed with inmates at Albion Correctional Facility and volunteer trainer and VFA member Tom Ryan working with them to prepare the dogs for adoption. 

Way before then, however, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, VFA answered the call for those residents who not only worried about their own lives but the lives of their beloved pets left behind in the massive flooding. 

“Things seemed to change with Katrina. There was a huge shift, and there was a more of a recognition that there were places that had large volumes of animals that needed to be adopted and were adaptable,” Castleman said. “And for me, personally, it was a huge game changer. And I think those core volunteers are still very active. And to include the community and make it a more positive experience for both the public and the animals.”

Those rescues became a big source of news and more happy local adoption stories as volunteers drove dogs back to Batavia to a safer harbor. They have continued to snatch dogs from the jaws of high-kill shelters in other states for quick turnaround adoption times, as folks here always seemed eager to help out and welcome a four-legged into their own homes.

There’s a core of about 30 volunteers — some committing once a week and others more or less often — with 40 foster families tending to kittens to free up space for adult cats in the shelter but willing to bring the young ones in for visits when needed.

“We have a really good adoption rate because of the public; people think about adopting,” Knisley said. “I think, too, the gratitude that we feel towards the volunteers themselves because our volunteers come in and cover every day of the year. Somebody is here helping, and it's such an important integral part of us is having people here, and besides the wonderful donations that we get with the money to do what we do, it's the people.”

They are proud to say that 95 percent of every dollar donated goes directly to help the animals in Genesee County and the surrounding area, and there are no salaried employees in the organization. The breakdown for 2023 includes 76 percent for veterinary care, which was $170,827; 17% for medications, vaccine and food supplies, or $37,856; 5% for fundraising, $11,047; and 2% for rescue dog fees, or $4,560. 

It is rewarding, emotional and sometimes difficult being an animal welfare volunteer, Colantonio said. 

“We see the best of humanity and the worst of humanity,” she said. “From being saved from an abusive situation, rescued from a hoarder home to simply taking in a pet that is no longer loved or wanted, the well-being of the dog or cat is always our first priority.”  

One of those situations involved a barely recognizable pooch that came to the shelter with so much puss from infections that he had to stay in a bathtub for a while, Castleman said. 

“His ears and mouth were pouring with puss,” she said.  “We took him to a vet clinic, and the vet said ‘we can clean it up, he needs antibiotics, vet care and he had dental work.”

While the prognosis was iffy, and the amount of grotesque puss was “heartbreaking,” that dog turned out to be a “gorgeous Pomeranian.” His name was Nook, and he was most definitely a cutie. He proved positive that miraculous transformations can take place for what might seem like a hopeless cause.

It was the same for those dozen poodles, rescued from a hoarding situation. Most of them recovered and were adopted, including two little girls who went on to live for nine years with a local reporter. They had major dental work, anxiety, social issues, inability to take stairs, walk on a leash or hold down their meals many times or remain housebroken, but were loving, comfortable and loved. 

“They just rebound,” Castleman said.

After all, that’s what Volunteers For Animals, celebrating its 40th year, is all about: hope for hopeless animals. 

Photos by Howard Owens

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