Jennifer Miller: FOTAS president has helped save thousands of animals in Aiken County

May 12, 2019

When Jennifer Miller moved to Aiken over a decade ago, she never dreamed she would help facilitate the transformation of the Aiken County Animal Shelter and improve the lives of thousands of cats and dogs in need of a good home.

Miller grew up in Swampscott, Massachusetts, a town about 15 miles north of Boston. Swampscott was only a mile from the beach, where Miller enjoyed along the water’s edge and listening to the sound of the waves.

Miller went on to graduate summa cum laude from Duke University with a degree in Psychology.

She also credits her parents with setting an excellent example for her work ethic, which would eventually go a long way in helping animals in Aiken County later in Miller’s life.

“I had a fun, open relationship with my parents and sister who is seven years younger than I,” Miller said. “We over-celebrated all holidays to the point of being corny, but it kept us close...My parents made certain we were exposed to as much as possible: the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly.”

When it was time to retire, Miller had a different dream destination.

“To retire and have a horse farm — that was always my dream,” Miller said. “Aiken was great for that. In Massachusetts it was way too cold and the land was way too expensive.”

Despite always being an animal lover, Miller had never worked with animals professionally. When she retired to Aiken in 2005 with her husband, Peter, she was leaving behind her career of running the largest rental car company in the Northeast, which she started with her father. They planned to settle down and live a quiet life.

“When I moved here I was surprised that there were so many stray dogs and cats,” Miller said. “I wondered what that was all about. I didn’t see that in Massachusetts — all those homeless animals. So I went to the community animal shelter — and this was at the old shelter — to see what was going on.”

Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw next.

The animal shelter was overflowing with strays. It was old, outdated, and facing a desperate lack of resources. Miller said she was “ appalled” and “heartbroken” by the conditions.

“It made me cry every time I went in there,” Miller said. ”…It was built for 100 animals and had over 200 in it. There was no waste-management system to speak of. There was no HVAC system to speak of. It was hot, stuffy, animals were getting sick. There wasn’t enough space. And these little faces looking at you just tore my heart out, because they were there through no fault of their own. It’s because of people that they’re there.”

The small shelter was receiving over 5,000 animals a year. Without the resources to rescue all of them, shelter staff was forced to euthanize more than 90 percent, including most of a “beautiful” litter of puppies Miller fell in love with.

“...I told myself that it has to stop, and I was going to work until it stopped,” Miller said. “That was really my trigger.”

Miller networked with other animal lovers in Aiken and formed Friends of the Animal Shelter (FOTAS) in 2009. The organization, of which Miller serves as president, is a volunteer-based nonprofit which also serves as the fundraising arm of the Aiken County Animal Shelter.

“Our goal was that our community shelter would never have to euthanize an adoptable pet.” Miller said.

Thanks to Miller and FOTAS, the shelter has a volunteer program that assists shelter staff and helps socialize animals for adoption. FOTAS recruited a foster program for young kittens and puppies and started a transfer program to send cats and dogs to other shelters out of state that have low populations of strays.

“The other things that we had to do were education and marketing,” Miller said. “We had to explain to the community that Houston, we have a problem. We’re in a situation where overcrowding at the shelter is horrific.”

Under Miller’s leadership, FOTAS has helped educate Aiken County on the importance of spaying/neutering pets and TNR programs.

But their most ambitious project was to yet to come.

“Despite the improvement and the efforts, the overall goal could not be obtained unless the antiquated, unhealthy and inadequate shelter can be replaced with a new, clean, functioning shelter,” Miller said.

The undertaking to fundraise and build a new shelter for animals was massive. FOTAS raised over $500,000 for the new building.

The new facility opened on Wire Road in 2014.

“I wanted it to be a nice place to come to,” Miller said. “…We want people to look at our shelter as a resource center to how we can help animal welfare.”

Miller said her time in “the business world” didn’t prepare her for the enormous undertaking she started. Miller said she felt overwhelmed “everyday.”

“I had no experience with animal advocacy or government or shelters, or anything like that,” Miller said. ”...I would spend countless hours every week trying to do what I thought was the right thing. Where I was really blessed is I found people who cared as well in our community…I’m just so thankful for the help. The cliche that it takes a village- it does. That’s what I learned.”

And their efforts have certainly paid off.

“The shelter has changed from an over 90 percent euthanasia rate to an over 90 percent save rate in ten years,” Miller said. “We adopted and transferred and saved over 4500 animals (in 2018). Shelters don’t do that in years.”