AWLA shelter worker and her furry friends accept a check for a planned addition to the Alexandria animal shelter at 910 S. Payne Street. Photo from June 1969 Alexandria Gazette.
Photo by Don MacAfee, courtesy of Alexandria Library, Special Collections
Seventy years ago this June the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria was born, and it was one of the first humane organizations in metropolitan Washington. Springing from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, which was founded two years earlier, the Alexandria organization was started by a group of citizens concerned about the welfare of animals in the city. One driving force was the existing Alexandria “dog pound,” located near the intersection of Route 1 and East Monroe Street. Conditions there reportedly were so bad that on occasion well-meaning citizens broke in to free the dogs.
A few months before the June 1946 founding, the citizens met to choose officers. They were:
Chairman: Capt. James Douglas
First Vice Chairman: Dr. Nelson Gray
2nd Vice Chairman: Mrs. L.W. Corbett
Recording Secretary: Mrs. Stanleigh Swann
Corresponding Secretary: Miss Anne Carter
Treasurer: Mr. Warren Grubbs
Counsel: Mr. Albert Bryan
Minutes from one of the meetings about the formation of the League reveal that the functions and activities of today’s AWLA have deep roots. The April 16, 1946, minutes conclude with:
“Before the meeting adjourned, Mrs. Miller enlisted the interest of all in trying to locate a police dog by the name of Streaky which had been lost by a (World War II) veteran on his way through Alexandria. The dog had been brought back by the veteran from the South Pacific. It is one of our first acts as a League to endeavor to find the dog and bring him back to his master.”
Some milestones in early AWLA history:
June 1946: AWLA is incorporated. City permits the League to use city records of dog tags for a large-scale membership drive.
1950: The city of Alexandria provides a desk and phone to the League at the city recreation center. League members begin to set up central files and launch a daily operation.
1950: AWLA lends support to a fight against an order that would evict people living in some Alexandria housing projects unless they gave up their pet dogs.
Jan. 1, 1951: City turns over supervision of the shelter entirely to the League, providing a budget of more than $9,000 a year. Soon the League is able to raise $3,000 to cover veterinary fees and other shelter needs. Devoted friends donate an “electric refrigerator, inlaid linoleum and furniture” and build special cages for the dogs, cats and kittens that sit on raised wooden platforms to provide warmth.
Jan. 20, 1951: New shelter, at 910 S. Payne Street, opens. Will be open seven days a week. During the first month, more than 1,000 animals are handled, and more than 250 are adopted out.
1952: Newspaper story proclaims that the new shelter can “take all animals but snakes and alligators.” The story describes the League’s rescue of a pregnant deer drowning in the Potomac River and states that “few Alexandrians seem aware of the truly marvelous pets available at the shelter.”
January 1952: Minutes of an AWLA meeting summarize the progress made in the shelter’s first year, including the following anecdote, relayed by the chairman:
“A few Sundays ago we were called to pick up an injured dog out Russell Road. The dog had been hit by a car and one leg almost completely broken off. He was taken immediately to the veterinarian, where a sedative was administered. Fortunately, he had a dog tag on. Our members in the area started efforts to locate the owner, and our shelter operator, Mrs. Mullitt, reached Mr. Sullivan, who through the city’s records, was able to give us the owner’s name. The owner was notified, and thus was able to save her pet’s life. The League is prepared to handle about anything that comes up. We have been called concerning possums, rabbits, guinea pigs, and assisted in retrieving a deer from the river. A couple of weeks ago I was not at all surprised to see a goat in one of the runs. We placed her, too.”
1989: AWLA secures official contract with the City of Alexandria to provide animal care, control and operation of the shelter.
May 18, 2002: The new Vola Lawson Animal Shelter on Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria is dedicated, with former city manager Vola Lawson and other city officials in attendance. The shelter features more spacious and comfortable quarters for staff and, more importantly, the resident animals.
May 2015: AWLA signs a formal agreement with the Alexandria Police Department to create a working relationship on all animal-related matters in the city of Alexandria. Working with officials, AWLA brings forward 25 criminal cases of animal abuse and neglect.
2016: Alexandria’s animal shelter is a vast improvement over the squalid conditions of the original dog pound on East Monroe Street. The Vola Lawson Animal Shelter is a model shelter and a leader in national best practices for animals, both pets and wildlife.