After becoming a volunteer with Husker Cats in 2014, I started to follow online groups that also took care community cats. One day a post appeared about a picture book that had been published on the topic. Being a book reviewer, I naturally contacted the author and requested a copy of Nobody’s Cats. Since then, Valerie Ingram and I have exchanged emails about many topics including our former teaching careers and our passion for homeless cats. When she released a new book this past fall, Out in the Cold, she graciously sent me a copy. It’s an honor to know Valerie, who is an advocate for homeless animals, and to introduce her to you.
Valerie was born and raised in Burns Lake, a small and rural community of northern British Columbia. She grew up on a farm, and critters of all kinds were always a part of her life. After spending twelve years teaching in her home town, Valerie started the Lakes Animal Friendship Society with her husband in 2008. While humane education is her passion, she also runs Lakeside Legacy B&B, and offers free stays for anyone in animal welfare to help recharge their batteries and combat compassion fatigue. The Lakes Animal Friendship Society is personally funded for the most part, with donations and grants targeted at on-the-ground projects.
ALLISON: What was your favorite part of childhood?
VALERIE: My favorite part of childhood was growing up in a rural and Northern setting. There was so much room to explore, to play. We have four distinct seasons in northern BC, which I think can be so enriching on its own! Ice on the lake, swimming in the summer, snow for sledding and so on. I spent many hours simply observing nature, exploring my surroundings, which of course brought me to many hours of watching critters of all kinds. Everything from the fox living in the sandy bank close to our house to the crows talking to each other in the trees. Loved these moments and memories.
ALLISON: What animal would you most compare yourself to as a child? As an adolescence? Why?
VALERIE: Hmm, compare myself to an animal as a child. That would be a quiet and inquisitive mouse:) I explored, but quietly. I didn’t want to disturb what I was watching. I was often solitary too. Only one older brother and we did not live near any other children my age.
As an adolescent? A horse. I LOVED horses. Grew up on this acreage with a small farm so there were always animals around. I would see the horses so free in the back fields. So happy, so playful. I wished to be that free.
ALLISON: You were once a teacher. What attracted you to the field?
VALERIE: I always wanted to nurture. Nurture a sick kitten, nurture a dying plant, nurture the children I was a nanny for growing up. It seemed natural to work with children in schools. As I spent the last few years teaching formally, I found myself inadvertently rescuing dogs and cats, and I’d bring dogs to school to teach the children about their care. It seemed a rather natural transition to move from the classroom (which was consuming) to a volunteer basis of coming in to talk to the children about the care and compassion and responsible pet guardianship of our pets.
ALLISON: You now dedicate your time to animal welfare. What drew you to this line of work?
VALERIE: It began with small steps. We felt concern for the well-being of the critters (seeing frozen dogs at the end of their chains with no shelter), safety of our children (watching students on the playground have their food snatched from their hands by hungry packs of dogs), and the happiness and health of our families and community (the horror of “dog and cat shoots” as a solution to pet overpopulation, where the community comes to see such things as the norm).
I was fortunate enough to connect with Jean Atthowe, the founder of the Montana Spay/Neuter Task Force early in my education about the problems and solutions. She taught me how an entire community needs to be involved and educated, and programs must respect the traditions and uniqueness of the community. Providing and teaching humane solutions to pet overpopulation and neglect are the key to empowering the local people and bringing about long-term change. As Jean says, we are seeking a “change in attitude that will thus bring a change in behavior through respecting animals and then other living creatures including members of their family, school, and community”.
ALLISON: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
VALERIE: I’m most excited to see how the children have become empowered. To see how after six years of consistently delivering the same message on care, compassion, bite safety and responsibility, that attitudes and behavior CAN be changed. I tell the children that they have the ability to become a “superhero,” that they can save a life by adopting an animal in need.
I’ve seen the unhealthy cycle of pet overpopulation, abuse, and neglect being broken. The children help spread the message on what our pets need to thrive. It was only natural to take the children’s excitement and passion and further showcase their efforts through a newsletter. We started Critter Care News three years ago, showcasing all the remarkable achievements children have made in our community.
Again with the involvement of local children, we created a song called “Teach My Person How to Love Me” in a workshop led by musician Lowry Olafson. This fun and catchy song helps guardians of all ages understand what their pets need. I now use it in all my classroom visits.
ALLISON: What do you find the most challenging?
VALERIE: The most challenging aspect we have faced are the people who are “not dog or cat lovers” and do not “get” why we pour our hearts, souls and resources into what we do. We are firm in our conviction that healthy, happy animals are an important part of happy, healthy families and communities. It’s not just about being “a dog lover”. It is so much more!
Now we are at a point where we have to figure out how we can make our programs more sustainable. On the education front, looking beyond our community we need to find the resources to bring a consistent, high quality and repeated education program to all the schools along our corridor in northern British Columbia. Potential volunteers are few and far between, stretched thin and perhaps not able to make it back to schools on a regular basis. From our experience, persistence and consistency are critical.
ALLISON: Have you seen a difference between United States animal welfare issues and those you find in Canada?
VALERIE: At their root, a lot of the big issues are the same: like socioeconomic conditions, infrastructure, education, cultural differences. But of course the specific, local issues can vary greatly. One size does not fit all in terms of a workable approach! That’s why it is so important to have the grass-roots, community element to all programs. Areas of downtown Phoenix, Arizona and the rural First Nations community of Tachet in British Columbia may both have problems with companion animal overpopulation, but the causes are different meaning that education and other interventions will take different shapes. The sharing of information and materials contributes to the evolution of these programs as different areas try different approaches to deal with local circumstances. Education is the common thread no matter where you are.
ALLISON: Who keeps you going?
VALERIE: Without my husband’s support, I would not succeed at a fraction of LAFS projects and goals. He is my tech support, grant writer, shoulder to lean on, and a very patient soul! He shares in this building of a community of care, one animal, one student, one family at a time! We share our house with Dusty and Lulu. Both dogs were in desperate need of rescue, and are both failed fosters. Dusty is now the school spokes dog that comes with me to all my classroom visits. He has patiently taught thousands of children how to read his body language and to greet him safely. And Lulu, well, she is a squirrely pooch that keeps my hubby company when he works in the forest to generate the funds to pay for our humane activities!
As noted in the interview, Valerie and her husband created Lakes Animal Friendship Society to help improve animal care and health. The organization focuses on educating the community in various ways.
- Education Program: Valerie have completed close to 5,000 student visits in the classroom (Pre K to Gr. 12), and seen a tremendous increase in levels of awareness of how to be a responsible pet guardian and stay safe around dogs and cats. Their community education component has included presentation to local groups and dozens of articles in local media.
- Dog House Program: The couple began small, building houses in their backyard, and then shifting to refurbishing donated older dog houses. Now the program has become a sustainable one through local schools, bringing our total to 200 dog/cat houses for needy critters. School groups volunteer to build and paint these houses. Extension activities include writing and poster contests to “earn” a doghouse.
- Feeding Program: Thanks to donations from the wealthier southern region of British Columbia and a discounted shipping cost, the organization has been able to distribute four tonnes of food to critters in need, through its food bank and door to door deliveries where the needs are most.
- Community Animal Care Events: By establishing a connection with Canadian Animal Assistance Team (CAAT), the organization is able to have volunteer vets and techs from across Canada travel to rural areas where animals from lower-income families are in great need of veterinary services. They carry out spaying and neutering, health checks, vaccinations, and deworming on-site in facilities like community halls. They incorporate education into every phase of the clinics they conduct. The entire community is invited to participate or observe at every step.
- Workshops: The organization host workshops to provide education kits complete with books, activities, and lesson aids for volunteers wanting to bring messages of animal welfare to their schools and community. The majority of the material has been put together as result of networking through individuals, authors, publishers, and other groups.
Reprinted from Allison’s Book Bag. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2016.