Animals have shaped VIKKI SCOTT’S life in a profound way. Fueled by a lifelong dedication to saving our four-legged companions, her strongest childhood memories involve her pets, and she can easily identify her own personality traits that evolved out of her relationships with them. As Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Vikki Scott lives this ideal. She is a trailblazer, an advocate, a natural leader. At Animal Advocates of Barnwell County, she developed a program with a nearby prison that allowed rescue cats and dogs to live with inmates. The nonprofit continues to thrive after 20 years, thanks to her creative and innovative approach. This rescue and adoption agency has given Vikki a chance to pay forward what she has had all her life—the perfect pet for an individual, a child, a family, and the promise that their lives will be enriched just as hers was.
Your entire adult life has been dedicated to saving animals. When did that love begin?
I have always loved animals. The first bad word I ever said was in their defense. As a child, I became very ill, and the family doctor came to our house for a doctor’s call. I was actually having an asthma attack. He said, “That damn dog and those damn ducks have to go.” To which I said, “Like hell they will.” I was three or four years old at the time. That sentiment has held throughout my entire life. I was allergic to dogs and am highly allergic to feathers and cats (I currently have 10 cats of my own!!!). Thankfully, I out-grew my allergy to dogs. At the present time, I have 10 personal dogs.
What were the names of your animals?
Buffy was the dog, and the ducks were Susie and Ducky Daddles Roma.
What was special about Buffy?
I don’t remember when or how we got her, only that I was three years old, and she was a cocker spaniel. When I was five, she made her way through our fence and I witnessed her being run over by the milkman. It was devastating for me.
After Buffy, who came?
The vet knew how upset I was after Buffy died and had been boarding a little dog named Tuffy who was left at his clinic by people who never returned to get her. The vet gave Tuffy to me.
As an only child, did animals replace siblings?
Absolutely. If you grow up as an only child, you create a pretend friend or talk to your animals. Animals became my best friends.
Did you learn unconditional love from your animals?
I knew that no matter what, my animals would be there. They were inside dogs. My father would say no more animals, but every time he went out of town, we got another animal.
How many animals did you have in your formative years?
As a child, the most dogs I had at one time were three, but in my older years, a lot more.
You were born in Washington, DC, and lived in Alexandria, Virginia, until your father’s job as an engineer moved the family to Clemson, South Carolina.
Yes, I moved to Clemson in high school. After graduation, I went to Winthrop and then transferred to the University of South Carolina where I obtained a degree in nursing.
Was it tough?
Yes, it was the hardest thing for me because they gave my dogs away when we moved. I never got over it.
How long were you without dogs?
Until after college.
It broke your heart.
It did. I was very shy at that age and although I had a friend or two, I wasn’t someone that had a lot of friends.
Why did you enter the profession of nursing? And has that helped you in the world of animal rescue?
Absolutely. In nursing school, you learn not to give sympathy, but to give empathy. If you give sympathy, you can’t help someone because you become too emotionally involved. You must be able to stand back a little bit, think, and then react.
Did nursing create the foundation for your life’s work with animals?
What area of nursing did you gravitate toward?
I thought I wanted to be a pediatric nurse. I requested that when I applied for a job at Richland Memorial, (Richland Palmetto now). Pediatrics didn’t have a space and so I was placed in orthopedics. In hindsight, this was a good thing because I was exposed to so much more.
Surgery was eventually the field where you landed?
Yes, and I use what I learned in nursing every day now but directed at animals. My medical knowledge and experience help me save animals’ lives. I can pick up on a symptom, just like with people, and act on it.
When did you move to Allendale, South Carolina?
After I met my husband and we were married, we moved to Allendale, South Carolina, which is a very rural area of the state. It was not an easy transition. Most of the people have lived there all their lives and like many small towns, new people are slowly accepted. We lived there for eight and a half years, and then we moved to Barnwell.
Is this where your rescue work began?
My first adult rescue was right after college, but yes, it continued on a much larger scale in Allendale and then in Barnwell. My husband is in the lumber business, a place where stray dogs and cats would congregate. While some lived at the lumber mill, we always tried to find homes for them. We kept what we could but never took them to the pound.
How many animals are you talking about?
Do you think that people were leaving their animals at the mill knowing that they would be cared for?
I’m sure they were.
In 2005, you formally began protecting and caring for animals?
In the beginning, we helped the local shelter as volunteers. We were just so sad and upset with the deplorable situation there. There was a 98% euthanasia rate at that time, so wonderful animals that were very “adoptable,” were being euthanized. The annual budget, when we started, was $40,000 at the county shelter. This included salaries and they only allotted $200 a year for food for the animals. Their mindset was to kill the animals, which was hard to watch and absorb. We decided to start a nonprofit called Animal Advocates. We felt that we could save animals by taking them from the shelter as quickly as possible and getting them medical care or whatever else they needed . . .
Did you begin, initially, with the sickest animals or the healthiest?
We tried to do a variety.
So, you would go to the county facility, and pay to save certain animals, while knowing the remaining would be euthanized? How do you decide between this animal and that animal, knowing the end result?
It is tough, and we still make those decisions. It’s not easy for one person to make that decision either, so we send two people . . . sometimes three, to decide their fate. We feel very guilty when we leave because we couldn’t take them all. You must focus on the big picture and help as many animals as possible.
What criteria do you use when you rescue animals?
There are different criteria depending on space availability. Our Friends for Life Center has limitations with little and large runs available. So, the criteria are based on what animals we already have at the center. If we have little dogs, we will get big ones. We try to diversify with different colors, sizes, and personalities, so we have something adoptable for everyone.
What are the mechanics of adoption?
We place our animals on various rescue sites like Petfinder and RescueMe. Sometimes adoptions happen by word of mouth. We have several repeat adopters who tell their friends. Most people are looking for an animal on the internet and they call us. We have been so amazed. People drive many miles to our facility when we know they have a county shelter or even a rescue in their town. This past week, we had an adoption from Daniel Island, South Carolina, and one from Augusta, Georgia. We had someone fly from New York on their private plane to adopt one of our cats.
Your team spends a good bit of effort, time, and energy in the digital world?
Yes, we have our Facebook page, of course, and we place our adoptable animals on rescue sites.
How many premier rescue sites do people use?
There are four that people really follow.
You started a program in the prison system, where animals are placed with the incarcerated. Why that population? How did that idea come about?
It was an idea I have always had in the back of my mind. We were building our Friends for Life Center and I had a call from the warden at the Allendale Correctional Institution. He asked me to come visit, which I did. I felt that cats were a necessity. “How would we do cats here?,” he asked. I said, “They will live with the guys . . . with a litter box.” At the end of the day, he said, “Bring nine cats.” We started with two cats, and the program evolved. “When are you going to bring the dogs,” he asked. I said, “Well, I’m not.” He asked why? And I said, “because I don’t like where you want to put them. I don’t want them just stuck out in dog houses.” He asked me where I wanted them placed and I said, “In the rooms with the guys.” “All right, bring them and we’ll try it.” he said. We went from nine cats to having 50 animals continuously at the prison.
Do the cats fare better in that program than dogs, or is it equal?
Were there any experiences that were bad, that made you reconsider?
Never. The one thing that I worried about was if the animals got sick. Would they get in touch with me? Every single time an animal became ill, it didn’t matter when, they would do their part. If it was two o’clock in the morning, they would call.
What are the criteria for placing the animals with inmates?
We had one dorm with two wings. We put the cats on A wing and the dogs on B wing. It was one dorm and we affectionately called it the Animal House. Inmates must apply to be pet dads. Our program is called Meow Mate & Mutt Mate. The inmate must go through an interview process with inmate leaders, which once selected, is how they become a pet dad. They can have no disciplinaries.
What happened during COVID?
My heart goes out to the incarcerated because they were unable to see their families until recently for two years. Volunteers like myself could not go in.
How many animals were part of the Meow Mate & Mutt Mate program?
At least 1000 animals have gone through the gates of that prison.
Were they more adoptable because they became socialized by the inmates when they left?
Absolutely. I was working at the center one Saturday and a couple from Columbia came to look at our cats. I took them from room to room, then I returned to my desk and said, “Just help yourself and see if a cat “speaks to you.” In a few minutes, the husband came out and looked so funny. He said, “What do you all do to these cats? I’ve never seen such friendly, sociable cats in my life.” I said, “We sent them to jail. I explained the whole process to him. He was just amazed. It is a win/win. The pet dads compete against each other to see whose dog and even the cats can be trained. The men got on a kick of teaching cats to walk on a leash and harness, oh my gosh, and how to sit up in bed like a dog. The experience for the animal is positive because it makes them so much more sociable. We usually send our problem animals to prison, and the inmate and animals help each other. We have animals so strong they can pull our vet assistants down on the ground. The inmates work with them. There was a cat with separation anxiety, so bad that when you would leave it by itself, it would throw itself against the door, literally cutting its face all up. Because the men are in the rooms most of the time, they would step out of the door for a minute, then go back, then three minutes, then five . . . Over time, it really made a difference in the cat’s life.
Was the cat eventually adopted?
Why has this program not been templated across the United States?
I think people are afraid. When I first brought this up at our board meeting, I had a couple resign.
Vikki, they did not belong on your board.
Well, thank you. They worried that something would happen to the animals.
Think of all the people who were bettered by the program, not to mention the lives of the animals who were loved. How could anyone tarnish that?
The program has lasted nine years, and I never had a problem.
Is there a comparable program, to your knowledge?
To my knowledge, no. There are several cat programs across the United States, but none with both.
Your foundation received the 501 C 4 status in 2005 meaning you are approaching the 20-year mark. What is the capacity of the shelter?
We can accommodate a total of 100 animals. Having a prison program allows us a place to house so many more. The animals are being trained and they become more adoptable at the same time. It’s just a no-brainer.
You double your footprint while socializing animals in preparation for adoption. Whose idea was that?
I wanted to do it, but our Center was being built. It was the decision of the warden. The moment we got the key, we took the animals there.
Before the warden approached you, you knew that there was a need. Was he a family friend?
No, but his executive assistant is a friend of mine. He had called another rescue and they never returned his call. She told him, “I know somebody for you to call.” She then called me and asked if I would come to talk to them. I said sure, not ever realizing what it would become.
What was your biggest struggle in the formative years of Friends for Life?
In the rural south it is so difficult to raise money for any nonprofit. Our median income is $25,000 and people are just trying to keep their heads above water. They don’t have money to donate or time to volunteer. They are hardworking and caring for their children and families. We became pretty creative and opened a thrift shop called Pick of the Litter. During the challenging economic times, it has helped so many people in Barnwell. They can find quality merchandise at low prices, while we provide jobs to diverse people. We currently have three special needs employees working between the center and our Pick of the Litter shop.
Where do you find the Pick of the Litter inventory?
People deliver the items to us. Every Saturday, if there’s a yard sale, people will load what they don’t sell and bring the residuals to the shop. Some families cleaning out “grandma’s home” will donate a whole house full of furniture.
Animal Advocates and Friends for Life Center. What’s the difference between the two of them?
Nothing, our organization is the Animal Advocates and the center is called Friends for Life.
How many square feet is your center? Can you describe it to the reader?
The center is about 5,000 square feet. You enter the Friends for Life Center through the lobby. In front are our adoptable cats housed in glass community rooms. On one end is our quarantine wing. Every animal, it doesn’t matter where they came from or if they’re up to date on vaccines, goes to quarantine. That way, we can observe their behavior and identify any medical problems. They stay there for at least 14 days, or until we feel like they are medically ready to enter the general population. The other wing is our dog adoption wing. The animals start at one place and just rotate through.
How large are the cages that these animals are in?
None of them are in cages. When they are in quarantine, we have condos for the cats because they must be isolated. But once they make it into the general population, we have three good size rooms, and they intermingle. They can climb on structures for exercise. We have little cat and doggy doors that go out on screen porches. The animals can go out and get fresh air and be on the screen porches. They love that.
Do they have a herd mentality and ever bully?
Oh yes. They’re just like children. We have one room that we call the Cattitude. It is a room for the ones that are a little bit older, and they don’t like the young ones and have an attitude.
Are all animals adopted?
Some are, and some are not. During COVID we had the most adoptions we have ever had.
And where did those adoptions go?
All over. People had a lot of time on their hands at home and were on the rescue sites. They would call us, download an application, and then apply. We then set up an appointment for them to come. Sometimes they come just to meet a couple of different animals. Sometimes they have already made up their minds. If they have other animals at home, we ask that they bring them so we can test their getting along.
Do you ever end up with rare breeds that are super desired, or are most of the rescues mixed breed animals?
We have everything, from little poodles to Great Pyrenees, Dobermans, and designer breeds. We have a little variety in every breed.
If you had an open wallet to make changes in this geographic area, what would you do?
I wish I could say just one thing, but our challenges are so multifaceted. Education is the key because you always change hearts if you can teach children. It is also simple awareness. I don’t think people that live in rural areas realize how bad it is. We have a lot of hunters in this area and if their dog doesn’t hunt well, they just let them go. In the fall, you would not believe the number of hounds and beagles that come into the county shelter. If a dog is lost, the owners will drive off and leave them. They do not want the dogs spayed or neutered either; it is a mentality that is beyond belief. If we could teach children the proper care and the value of animals, it would be such a different world.
How many days a week do you work?
I don’t do as much as I used to. I used to work seven days a week. I would usually go to the prison two or three days a week and then be at our center the rest of the time.
How many total employees do you have?
The total at our center right now is 11, and we have 10 employees at the thrift store. While we had hoped we could run this through volunteers, unfortunately, you can’t count on them. We have three certified people at our center.
Looking into the future, how does this operation sustain itself ?
We must be always thinking of new ways to fundraise. We have a grant team with three of our board members searching all the time for grants. Many grants are based on the people’s population, so oftentimes small rural areas do not qualify for much-needed grant money. We don’t get a lot of help while still experiencing an overpopulation of animals.
What do you want to be your legacy?
I hope that I made a positive difference in the lives of animals and children.
What piece of advice would you give your younger self ?
I would say to be more outgoing because I am naturally an introvert. It is important to learn how to network with others, particularly if you want to be successful in the animal world. You have to be able to talk with like-minded people and be willing to help each other with situations involving animals. Working in the animal world definitely made me become more outgoing. I think it is also very important to be open-minded.
You said something to me earlier, that one of the values of animals was they were not judgmental. But Vikki, you are not a judgmental person. Where does that come from?
From animals. ■