“Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character …” – Schopenhauer
I opened the door just a crack to keep my golden retriever Sunny from bounding through and peered at the man on my doorstep. He wore a navy blue hoody that had “Coach” embroidered above his name, jeans with leather piping down the seams and Doc Martin oxfords.
He sported a burgundy Phillies ball cap, and an Errol Flynn mustache under thick large lenses in wireless frames. He held a videocassette of highlights from his little league championship football team in his right hand.
He advertised himself as “financially and emotionally secure,” traits, as it turned out, that have come in handy over the ensuing 21 years, especially the last five.
Michael took me and Sunny to a park along the Potomac, and I took note that he did not complain about the blonde fur that coated the inside of his van or the muddy paws on the seat.
By the time we combined households a couple of months later, I had heard enough tales of Stokely, the black Lab who learned to wait at the curb for permission to cross the street even if a ball was tossed, and whose passing at 14 had left a hole in Michael’s heart too big to fill.
I had always had at least two dogs, and, as Sunny happened to be a lonely only at the time, it took a mere impulse to send me to the local pound looking for a Lab, preferably black.
Owing more to pity than passion, I came home with a dog we named Che, after the Argentinian revolutionary, a dog who would never wait for permission to cross the street or little else.
Michael worked patiently with the 6-month-old maniac until he would sit and stay, vibrating with the effort, then explode into motion once released. Nine years later we cut a holiday short to fly home to a dying Che. It was the only time I saw my husband cry.
Ziggy Marley was my gift to Michael our first Christmas in Aiken 11 years ago. Ziggy, the runt of an undersized litter, retained the nickname “Tiny Boy,” in spite of the black giant he eventually became. Not long after Ziggy’s arrival, we lost Sunny, and I filled the vacancy with a yellow Lab puppy. Then the rescue began.
Our first I pulled from a pen where he’d been abandoned for months by the death of his owners. “Don’t ask” was all I said when I brought Walter home, and Michael didn’t. When Walter’s new home only lasted 30 minutes, we kept him. He’d run off in the woods, occasionally attacking submissive dogs, and we kept him. Michael would stroke the kooky old black dog and croon, “Walter found a family.”
The summer of 2009, when we founded FOTAS, I held the titles of treasurer and secretary, but it was my husband Michael who entered and organized every financial transaction for the organization that would grow from a $2,700 fundraiser to instigating, inspiring and investing roughly half a million dollars in our new Aiken County Animal Shelter.
The books were balanced; the bills paid. Trained as an accountant, working as an auditor and project manager, moving over a 35-year career from paper ledgers to computerized personnel and accounting systems, Michael worked behind the scenes to lay the foundation of the organization.
Over the last 10 years, I have brought many more animals into the house: foster dogs, foster puppies, foster cats and kittens, baby rabbits, baby birds, baby possums and baby deer. Most have moved on, but many dogs have come in frightful condition, been healed and loved and stayed.
We have had cancer surgeries, a hip replacement, amputation, unrelenting pneumonia, two knee surgeries and another hip. We have probably fostered 75 animals and only failed to save four.
With each successive rescue effort, I knew that my mate much preferred a simple life without pens in the foyer and the constant odor of scented candles barely disguising the stink.
Yet, late last winter, we were driving a bully terrier to the transport van. Dolly Mama was supposed to have spent one night but had ended up staying almost 7 weeks. Heading into town, Michael was fretting, and I was crying, when he said, “You want to keep her?” I pulled the car over, made the call, and we did.
Dolly joined our oversized family at about the same time that we incorporated PAWS, Palmetto Animal Welfare Services. The PAWS mission is to get and keep animals out of shelters, primarily through SNYP, accessible affordable spay/neuter in partnership with the SPCA.
But we also incorporated the programs Heartbeats and LEASH Squad that rescue last-chance county cases. All of these programs have considerable expenses spread all over the map and, therefore, considerable fundraising requirements.
Michael consented to be the official PAWS treasurer. As such, he is on a first-name basis with veterinary clinics and boarding facilities across the state.
He is learning to work with people who can only think of the life in their hands, often overlooking the billing gaps, double billings, fees and transaction records.
Without flinching he loaned the organization the startups funds it needed. He balances the books and reminds me that we need to promote this essential cause.
That first night over 21 years ago, Michael J. DiStefano asked me what it would take to win my heart. I had never even wondered. “I think it would be just the right combination of romance and adventure,” I replied.
Now, each time I pull up our driveway I see the wooden sign he had made for me a couple of Christmases ago. “Welcome to Bedlam,” it says, and I read, “I love you.” This spring for our 20th anniversary, I ordered the one below it. “Must Love Dogs,” it warns, but in Bedlam it means, “I love you, too.”
Joya Jiménez DiStefano is an artist, Servant Leader, and co-founder of FOTAS and founder of PAWS, Inc.