Animals of Westmoreland shelter dedicated to be 'voice for the voiceless'

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

At the corner of South Third and Depot streets in Youngwood hangs a large, white banner: “The Animal Friends of Westmoreland: A voice for those who cannot speak.”

The nonprofit, no-kill animal shelter is one of many in the area. The Youngwood site houses about 20 dogs and 30 cats — all in need of a loving home.

The establishment was founded in 2006 by Candy Valentino Nelson, a Realtor and owner of Platinum Salon & Spa in Youngwood.

“Her dream of helping abandoned and homeless animals was inspired by her own love for animals,” says the website.

Nelson started by rescuing animals from the high-kill shelters throughout the area. When more space was needed, she decided to donate an 8,500-square-foot building for a shelter.

Animal Friends has been saving stray, abused and owner-surrendered animals ever since.

In 2012, the group achieved adoptions of 200 dogs and 69 cats. Of the 200 dogs, 81 were strays, 93 were surrendered by their owners and 26 were transfers.

The staff reported that they were able to reunite 22 stray dogs with their owners.

“Not only are we making a difference in the lives of animals,” Nelson said in a recent newsletter, “but we are making an impact on the lives of the humans that are blessed enough to adopt them.”

In October 2009, Nelson hired Robin M. Stewart as shelter manager.

The 41-year-old mother of two and owner of four pets is one of three paid employees. Stewart said she considers her work at the shelter a career instead of a job.

Stewart said that upon arriving at the shelter about 8 a.m., she and the other workers take each of the dogs outside to the fenced-in play area to exercise and go to the bathroom.

The outdoor area is carpeted with a special artificial turf called “K9Grass,” which allows for “liquid drainage and provides anti-microbial protection,” according to the group's website.

Before the animals are brought back inside the yellow, cinder-block canine room, each cage is cleaned. Dogs are provided fresh bedding, food and clean water.

The cat room, on the building's second level, is a different environment — quiet and dimmer with an occasional meow. Although most of the cats are strays, they are curious and friendly.

The time that the animals must wait to be adopted varies by animal, size and temperament.

Stewart said that potential adopters must fill out an application, in which they must provide personal references, housing/apartment information and a veterinarian history for any previous or current pets.

Once the references are checked, Stewart and the other staff members analyze the application to determine whether the selected animal is appropriate for the family.

“Some dogs require a person or family with a little more experience or physical strength,” she said.

One specific case involves a pit bull named Mason. Believed to be abused, he was found tied to a tree with a sign: “Take me, I'm free.”

When his cage is approached, he glares, lets out a low-pitched snarl and follows with a ferocious bark.

“He is not a mean dog,” Stewart explained as she released him, leashed him and led him into the waiting room. “He is just territorial and cage-aggressive.”

In the waiting room, he was playful and energetic, choosing to smell everything and play rather than snarl and snap.

“He is a sweetheart,” she said while looking at his massive jowls. “He just requires a specialized introduction and an experienced owner.”

Once the application is approved, it is placed on file and the family is notified. The applicant then is required to sign a contract stating they will properly care for the animal, and if a problem arises, he or she will return the animal to Animal Friends of Westmoreland.

In the years that the facility has been open, a contract never has been violated, Stewart said.

Once an animal is adopted, Stewart and the staff conduct follow-up phone calls and visits.

“Usually a week, a month and a year after the adoption,” she said.

In October 2009, Animal Friends began using PetSmart in Greensburg as a secondary venue, with much success, Stewart said.

“More than half of the adoptions either start or end there,” she said.

The shelter staff visits PetSmart every weekend. Dogs are available for adoption from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.

When asked what people can do to help the shelter and the cause, Stewart quickly responded: “Volunteer!”

She explained that the shelter is in constant need of daytime volunteers because so many people who volunteer have full-time day jobs.

For those interested in volunteering or adopting, the shelter is at 216 Depot St. in Youngwood. Hours are 1 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; and 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. For more information, call 724-925-2555.

Andrew Hesner is a freelance writer.

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