Some Worthy Paws

By Kevin McKay

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Fifty-year-old Heather Nielsen has a favourite saying: “Saving one animal won’t change the world, but it will surely change the world for that one animal.”

About four years ago, Heather got involved with the Greater Victoria Animal Crusaders (GVAC) and now she is the President of the organization that is saving many animals every year.

GVAC has been around since 1973 and though it has changed board members, volunteers and donors many times over the decades, the passion for saving distressed animals has remained unwavering. In addition to finding foster families for abandoned pets, they also spay and neuter, locate adoptive families, provide emergency vet funding for sick animals and much more.

Following her divorce, Heather moved to Victoria and found work with the Land Title Office. With two girls to raise on her own, she had some hard decisions to make. “At this point in my life, my focus starting to become clearer,” she says. “What exactly was important to me? I knew I wanted my girls to learn what volunteering was all about. To give of yourself and expect nothing in return. We started small in 2007 by fostering with a small animal group called Small Mischief. I needed to make sure we could foster and let them go to their forever homes, so we started with hamsters, rats and hedgehogs.”

After her two long-lived cats died in 2007 and 2008, Heather started fostering cats. Since that time, she has fostered over 80 cats and also a few dogs, claiming, “Each one has a very special place in my heart.”

By 2010, she was an active member of GVAC, fostering animals, helping with fundraising, and eventually joining the board. She claims they do not operate as every other group does.

“There are three keys to a successful board: respect, communication and no one person is more important than any other. We don’t always agree, but the majority takes it. We all work full time, have kids, families, pets of our own and, sadly, house and yard work to do. GVAC is 100 per cent volunteer and we just fit in with our lives because giving a voice to those who have none is really important.”

Heather is convinced the most important part of the Animal Crusaders organization is the foster program. By providing a safe and loving environment for these animals to get acclimatized to trusting humans again or recover from an illness or injury fosters play a vital role.  

Some pets are fostered for only a few days, while others may be kept for months or even years. Since she is a foster herself Heather knows firsthand how it feels.

“Being a foster is such an incredible feeling,” she says. “Often they come to us scared or sick, and it is so amazing how animals live in the moment. We give them healthy food, a warm and safe place, and the time it takes to trust, and there is just no going back. You watch them thrive and when they start to trust, that is when the heart is engaged. The emotional investment can be overwhelming, when you need to let them go.  But, that is why we say fostering saves two lives, the one whose home we found, and then you are open to save another.”

Rayana Reece was forced into early retirement due to an illness, and then lost her 17-year-old dog and found herself really missing having an animal around. She took a cat in as a foster pet and has never looked back, fostering more than 50 cats over the past 15 years. She also volunteers for GVAC in a variety of capacities, including driving cats to vet appointments, fundraising and helping place animals with new fosters.

“Our dedicated group of volunteers visits every household before a pet is adopted to make sure it is the right fit,” says Rayana. “This is a time-consuming but necessary step to reduce the chances of the cat or dog being abandoned yet again. We often receive updates as to how much the pet is loved and how they are such a wonderful addition to the family. It is what makes what we do worthwhile.”

Though GVAC is entirely volunteer-led and receives no money from government agencies, they do what they can to ease the expenses of fosters. They will pay for medical treatment and medicine for the pets, will have them spayed and neutered, and will even pay for litter, pet food and supplies. Several fosters, who have the resources, choose to pay for those things themselves and then receive a year-end tax receipt they can submit as a donation.

Sadly, Rayana knows the flood of abandoned animals never stops, but at least she takes comfort from knowing she is part of an organizations that is doing something about the problem.

“I believe animals have the same feelings as people - loneliness, abandonment, fear, distrust,” she says. “It breaks my heart to see these innocent creatures who have been so ill-treated. Fostering is the most rewarding volunteer job I have ever done. It can be sometimes stressful dealing with aggressive, fearful and often dysfunctional animals. It often takes weeks or even months for you to gain their trust. But when they finally learn to trust you and let you hand feed them, curl up beside you on a chair or rub against your leg and claim you as "their own" it is the most wonderful feeling. Love goes a long way and, in even the worst cases of abuse, an animal will forgive with time and patience and can thrive if given the chance.”

Delana Steele has been involved with GVAC for around eight years and finds it extremely rewarding to be part of an organization that helps over 1,500 animals each year. In addition to fostering animals and other work with the board, Delana is in charge of fundraising for the group.  

“We have various events throughout the year,” she says. “Our biggest fundraiser is the annual Wags to Whiskers Dinner & Auction, where we usually raise anywhere from $16,000-$25,000. This year, it's on October 18th at the Royal Colwood Golf Course. We have been the charity of choice for two years now for the Vancouver Island Pet Expo. In addition to other events, kids sometimes donate their birthday money to GVAC and people host fundraisers themselves for us. We also have monthly donors who give anywhere from $10 to $300 a month.”

Delana also knows that fostering is good for more than the animal. “Fostering is very rewarding for both the animal and the foster. Folks who are unable to adopt an animal right now have the great chance to love and care for a pet and to know that they were integral to providing a new and nurturing start for an animal in need. Many people think they can't foster because they will become too attached to the cat and it would break their heart to let it go. But as a foster parent, what you get is so much more than you give. Most of our animals come from bad situations and just need to know that they can trust humans again. A foster parent gets to be an integral part of the healing process for many cats - how rewarding is that?”

If you wish to get involved with the Greater Victoria Animal Crusaders, either as a foster or a donor, email or visit




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