AWLA: 75 Years a Bulwark for Alexandria’s Animals

An eight-year-old gray and white cat named Biscuit blazed a trail at the AWLA this year: She underwent oral surgery in the shelter’s new Mobile Veterinary and Event vehicle, the first time such a medical procedure was conducted on site in the organization’s 75-year history. Biscuit was only the first of several animals to be operated on by the AWLA’s veterinary team that day, all receiving routine but critical care including state-required spay and neuter surgeries.

The specially outfitted van — dubbed Waggin’ Wheels — has streamlined the adoption process, allowing pets to undergo medical care without having to visit community veterinary partners. The van also travels, transporting adoptable animals to special events around the city.

2021 marked the AWLA’s 75th year serving as a key resource for the Northern Virginia community. Although the pandemic forced some changes in shelter procedures, the AWLA’s hearts remained as open as ever, providing support in numerous ways.

A record of more than 800 animals were transferred to the AWLA from around Virginia as well as Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and West Virginia. A partnership with an animal rescue organization in Florida’s Miami Dade area brought dozens of animals to the AWLA for adoption. In February, AWLA volunteers modified a van and retrieved 50 cats who were refugees from severe ice storms in Texas, bringing half of them back to the AWLA for adoption while the rest went to other local shelters and rescues. The AWLA also worked with the BISSELL Pet Foundation in September to transport dozens of animals from Louisiana shelters ravaged by Hurricane Ida. “We have a hugely supportive community here who open their hearts and homes to animals that may not have had the best start in life,” said an AWLA staffer. 

The AWLA continued to organize monthly drive-in vaccination clinics in 2021, providing nearly 1,000 free and low-cost rabies and distemper vaccines by appointment at the shelter. To minimize contact among people, volunteers ferried animals from cars into the shelter and back. “Rabies is a fatal disease, and it can be found in our area,” said shelter veterinarian Dr. Erica Caldwell. “The vaccine is required by law for dogs and cats, primarily to protect the entire community — people and animals — from this horrible disease.” New in 2021: Clinic attendees could also have their pets receive a microchip to help them reconnect with their family if they became lost.

Besides vaccinations, the AWLA continued to offer free food and other supplies through its popular Community Pet Pantry. Demand soared throughout the pandemic as people lost their jobs or worked reduced hours. Supplies donated by the community helped the pantry give out

more than 50,000 pounds of food and other goods in 2021, assisting pets so they could stay with the families who love them. The AWLA capped off the year with a Christmas Eve distribution of holiday packages of free pet food and supplies to Alexandria families in need.

Inclement weather didn’t stop pet parents from lining up at John Adams Elementary School in November so their dogs and cats could receive free vaccinations for rabies, distemper and parvovirus. The third such event last year, this Pets & People Community Wellness Event also offered free covid-19 vaccinations, shelf-stable groceries and other items provided by Alexandria nonprofits. “Our goal is to be a resource to our community, and by connecting with people near where they live, we were able to better serve attendees, both human and animal,” said AWLA Executive Director Stella Hanly.

At the fourth Alexandria Love Your Pet Day, organized by the AWLA and held at Oronoco Bay Park, families and their pets enjoyed music and magic, tried their hand at crafts and munched on delicious snacks. AWLA adoptable animals also strutted their stuff, and three of them found new families.

Those adoptions were only a few of a total of 1,461 carried out in 2021, through a combination of virtual and in-person appointments. The staff also continued to respond to numerous calls to help local wildlife in need. In the coming year, the AWLA plans to expand veterinary care for pets in the shelter and across the community and increase the number of animals transferred in – to help even more animals find welcoming families. “We’re excited to see what the next 75 years will bring,” Hanly said.


The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria is a local 501(c)(3) organization that operates the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter, The AWLA also answers questions about wildlife and animals in the community. More information can be found at AlexandriaAnimals.org.

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