AWA marks 70 years of animal services in South Jersey

After seven decades of progressive animal welfare, the organization aims to retain its founding purpose.

AWA fostercare and offsite adoption coordinator Sara Rivers, plays with Phat Head, a cat that recently underwent reconstructive surgery on his eyes.

In 1962, fliers with declarations such as “Don’t let pets roam” or “License your dog” could be seen scattered on telephone poles around the city of Camden.

That particular “Good Neighbor” campaign was one of several educational initiatives championed by the Animal Welfare Association since its inception in the late 1940s.

Although, in 2018, communication has moved to new mediums, the AWA’s objective to influence and improve the community’s behavior toward the welfare of animals has remained unwavered.

As this year marks its 70th anniversary, the organization is reflecting upon its past seven decades of progressive pet practices, using it as a compass to pioneer resolutions for current issues.

“As we’re planning the 70th we think, ‘How has AWA been relevant in what’s going on in the times to make a difference?’” AWA executive director Maya Richmond asked. “What is going to be the need in animal welfare that we’re going to be able to address?”

Richmond says, perusing through AWA meeting minutes from many decades ago, the agendas echo missions the organization still maintains today.

From animal birth control to preventive vaccines, the AWA has a history of revolutionary medical milestones throughout the 20th century that all sparked when four women formed a force in Camden in 1948.

After witnessing the horrid conditions of a municipal pound, the women started recruiting card-bearing members for a local club designed to combat the overwhelming quantity of stray and abused dogs roaming the city. With a $6 annual fee, the club gradually expanded, not only across Camden County, but Gloucester, Burlington and Ocean counties, eventually gathering up to 7,000 members through the 1960s.

From newspaper articles in the “Courier-Post” to subscribed brochures, the club spread knowledge about preventing animal cruelty across South Jersey. The coalition focused on saving animals and helping them find a home, as the AWA was among the first to establish a pet adoption contract in the state, according to Richmond.

“When the women went to (the municipal pound) they were incredibly troubled by the care that was given to the animals — the fact that the animals’ lives didn’t seem respected and valued,” Richmond said. “There’s a work ethic that started with those women that has stayed to this day. That drive is really important to us.”

Kennel attendant Alex Jacobs and executive director Maya Richmond of the Animal Welfare Association, plays with Bella, a seven-year-old mixed breed.

Although the AWA has maintained its mission into the 21st century, its services have undergone several changes. Before establishing itself as solely a shelter in the late ’60s, the organization was particularly focused on stopping animal cruelty, serving as a local investigative agency.

When complaint calls were made, the AWA would rescue and report cases, such as pets being kidnapped for research purposes.

In fact, the AWA even delved into legal issues, as it championed farm life legislation and the federal Animal Welfare Act of 1966. The law, which regulates the treatment of animals in research and exhibition, was locally championed by Charles Clausing, a longtime president of the AWA.

For some time, the AWA also maintained a wildlife recovery center before it transitioned into Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge.

After spending about two decades investigating and conducting research on a range of animals from horses to lizards, the organization shaved down its services to one — sheltering.

“That’s the biggest thing about AWA history — we were the investigative agency for so long until we decided to shift away from investigation and animal cruelty to the prevention of suffering,” Richmond said.

By the late ’60s and early ’70s, the AWA established a physical location in Voorhees, which is its current location at 509 Centennial Blvd.

The focus boiled down to preventing the presence of stray animals by addressing problems that spilled beyond the walls of the shelter.

In preventing overpopulation, during this time, the AWA applied for a loan from the Humane Society of the United States to start a spay/neutering clinic in 1974, which would come to be the first of its kind in the Mid-Atlantic region on the East Coast, according to Richmond.

“We’ve gone from these boxes and boxes of cats and kittens in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s to a variety of programs,” Richmond said. “And that’s what’s so special about AWA, we don’t just have one trick or solution. We’ve had so many different ways we’ve changed the community around us.”

From 1974 to 1979, the AWA performed 7,500 spays and neuters, according to Richmond.

The breakthrough trends did not end there, as in the 1990s, the AWA started preventive vaccines, making it mandatory to vaccinate animals as they come into the shelter to avoid other animals contracting illnesses.

Entering its 70th year, the AWA aims to maintain its seven-decade-old ability to recognize and respond to present animal problems.

Looking ahead, it specifically hopes to “help people help animals.”

“We are really about people, too. Because, we can’t make a difference in the lives of pets if we aren’t helping people help pets,” Richmond said.

In particular, she noticed, pets and people have been affected by shifting economics, such as the 2008 recession, as owners are struggling to provide for their animals. One of the 70th anniversary celebrations will entail rolling back spay/neuter and adoption costs to prices from the 20th century.

In the vein of current issues, the AWA also is focused on curving the overpopulation of pitbulls and helping to revise animal ordinances in neighboring towns.

With a staff of nearly 53 people and 100 monthly volunteers, the AWA has come a long way since four determined women in Camden. While it has a series of celebration plans through the year, including a birthday bash in October and a visual timeline of photos at the Town Center, the organization will stay focused on the cornerstone of its conception.

“For an organization to be that fluid and not stick to one aspect, and to make a difference over 70 years — is really remarkable,” Richmond said.