St. Francis of Assisi loved animals – so much so that he preached sermons to birds. He cared for creation, the environment, the sick, and the poor. It makes sense, then, that an organization devoted to the well-being of animals, regardless of their owners’ ability to pay, would name itself after the patron saint of animals.
Angels of Assisi, DVM Insider’s 2019 Vet500 winner, began its work in 2001 as a mobile spay-neuter clinic housed in a gutted-out and revamped camper trailer-turned-surgical suite. Two years later, the non-profit purchased property on the outskirts of downtown Roanoke, Virginia, expanding their services to an adoption center, well-pet care, sick care, surgery, and ultrasounds.
Now a full-service veterinary hospital, Angels of Assisi serves a wide-swath of Virginia and West Virginia pets through its Roanoke location and its mobile veterinary service.
Lisa O’Neill, executive director, says that providing economical veterinary care is a no-brainer.
“We believe that everyone deserves to experience the love of an animal,” O’Neill says. “If you make veterinary care accessible and affordable, people will get care for their pets.”
O’Neill says people wait in line for hours when the mobile clinic visits underserved areas where veterinary care is expensive or is difficult to find.
“People show up with dogs with mange and no hair, animals with infections,” O’Neill explains. “They will wait eight to nine hours to have their pets seen. It’s very heart-warming.”
Angels of Assisi employs five full-time veterinarians and a total staff of 42 people. In addition to veterinary care, the organization operates an adoption center and shelter for animals rescued from cruelty, neglect, and natural disasters. O’Neill tells of a hurricane rescue: a North Carolina animal shelter was told to evacuate and leave the shelter animals behind. Angels of Assisi helped to evacuate and shelter the animals. Fourteen hours later, the North Carolina shelter was under eight feet of water.
O’Neill explains the mission of Angels of Assisi not in terms of revenue, but in terms of a commitment to provide top-notch care for all animals, regardless of an owner’s financial situation.
“Our secret sauce is we believe in people. We believe people want the best for their pets,” O’Neill says. “We have a culture of no-judgment. Come as you are; we will meet you half-way.”
O’Neill explains their organization works in tandem with full-service veterinary clinics, not in competition.
“Many of the people who come to our clinic can’t afford veterinary care. They can’t afford emergency care,” she says. “We have people walk in with a dog who’s been in labor for two days, with pets in laundry baskets. Those pets are loved by their owners. They are loved by our staff. We keep animals and their human families together.”
She continues: “For some people, that pet is all they have. Pets are a part of families and they deserve quality veterinary care, even if their owner can’t afford it.”
O’Neill says it’s a tall order, but Angels of Assisi aims to model itself after St. Jude’s Children’s Hospitals.
“It’s a big goal. But it is important,” O’Neill says. “We believe it will be well-received. People love animals.”
And well-received they are.
“One of the best compliments we’ve received is that we are the hardest-working charity in Roanoke,” O’Neill says. “The community sees us at 2 AM, making a difference during natural disasters or in cases of animal abuse, neglect, or hoarding.”
Access to Care for Communities
Investing in the pets of the community reaps all manner of positive returns, O’Neill explains. She notes the organization’s impact in working with puppies with parvo. As owners learn more about pet care and vaccinations, they spread the word to friends and neighbors, increasing vaccination rates.
“In animal welfare, we notice that access to care is crucial. In rural areas and the inner cities, people can go where they can afford care without judgment. Some of these pets are seeing a vet for the first time when they come to our clinics,” O’Neill says. “If Angels of Assisi puts time and resources into their pets, their owners want to put time and resources into their pets.”
O’Neill believes pets to be an integral part of community well-being. And while some people working in animal welfare are not shy to express their disdain for people who struggle to provide care for their pets, O’Neill and Angels of Assisi takes a different tack.
“We give people the benefit of the doubt,” O’Neill explains. “We believe in the good of people. We believe an animal care facility needs to be a place of resources, not judgment, in the community.”