Who’s Next: Animal Advocates; 10 young Pittsburghers helping animals

Animals love our latest Who’s Next class. We think you will, too.

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Updated 10:56 a.m. May 14

Animals love our latest Who’s Next class. We think you will, too.

For the first time ever, we’re focusing on animal advocates, those people who spend their lives making the lives of animals better.

We’ve chosen 10 individuals — caretakers, innovators, rescuers, and more — whose work is life-saving, life-changing, and change-making.

If the greatness of a city can be judged by how its animals are treated (h/t to the Mahatma), then these people are a testament to Pittsburgh’s greatness.

So we’re proud to introduce our Who’s Next: Animal Advocates class. Who’s Next, presented by S&T Bank, is our chance to recognize up-and-coming dynamos in Pittsburgh and to introduce you today to tomorrow’s leaders and influencers.

Meet this class here and then get your ticket to join us at a happy hour in their honor on May 30.

Who’s Next: Animal Advocates happy hour with The Incline

Join us at a happy hour in honor of The Incline's Who's Next: Animal Advocates class. This event is for you if you love animals (who doesn't?!) and want to be more involved in helping those who help animals. At this celebration:

  • Meet honorees who were nominated by their peers and selected by The Incline's newsroom.
  • Bring your pets and enjoy Pittsburgh's first dog food truck, THE ROLLAWAY DOG CAFE.
  • Enjoy light bites and drinks from local vendors like Dreadnought Wines and Blume Honey Water to name a few.
  • Support local journalism while making friends with The Incline staff and other fellow Pittsburghers, too!
Who's Next, presented by S&T Bank, is a monthly series honoring under-40 professionals making Pittsburgh a better place. Your ticket supports our local newsroom, which is committed to keeping you informed by reporting relevant, original, and actionable news. If you love The Incline, become a member today.

Where:The Plaza at Nova Place at 100 South Commons (Allegheny Center)

When:May 30, 2019 from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

How much:$25 for public | Free for Who's Next: Animal Advocates honorees


Natalie Ahwesh

Vice President, HUMANE ACTION Pittsburgh
37 years old

Point Park University math professor by day, animal advocate always, Natalie Ahwesh continues to be a powerful voice for animal rights in Pittsburgh. As vice president of Humane Action Pittsburgh, Ahwesh has advocated for animal protective legislation, including a ban on bullhooks at Pittsburgh circuses and state laws aimed at ending puppy mills. She is also spearheading a statewide task force that will combat Pennsylvania puppy mills and says she aims to keep the animal protection dialogue moving forward in Pennsylvania while continuing her efforts to make Pittsburgh into “America’s Model Humane City.” Ahwesh attended Pitt and lives in the South Side.


Christine Bagtas

Cat Loft Manager, Colony Cafe
34 years old

Christine Bagtas is a matchmaker, finding homes for cats in need through her work at Colony Cafe, Pittsburgh’s first cat cafe. Since the cafe opened to the public in Pittsburgh’s Strip District in 2017, Bagtas has facilitated adoptions of more than 200 rescue cats, the vast majority being adults or seniors, typically the hardest to place in new homes. In Bagtas’s role as cat loft manager, she’s responsible for the daily care of adoptable cats, ensuring their health and well-being, drawing on her background as a veterinary assistant. “I moved to Pittsburgh a little over two years ago and made the choice to step away from the clinical environment,” Bagtas told The Incline. “I sought a position where I still had the opportunity to work with animals but in a low-stress environment. I’m fortunate to be involved in finding shelter cats their forever homes!” Bagatas attended the University of Illinois at Chicago and lives in East Liberty.

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Andrea Brown

Veterinary Technician, Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic
34 years old

Andrea Brown has always been surrounded by animals. The vet tech at Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic said her earliest memories are populated by a veritable menagerie — baby chicks, fish, love birds, toads, chinchillas, frogs, rabbits, crayfish, and finally cats and dogs. She’s continued to care for all types ever since, working as a vet technician and even starting her own bakery for cats, Brown Dog Pet Bakery & Boutique. (The name is a nod to her first dog, Brownie.) “Even as a shy, quiet child, I always felt the need to stand up and speak out for those I felt were without a voice,” Brown told The Incline. “This included other children, animals, anyone that I perceived needed me. A large part of small animal (read: owned pets) care is client education. My motto is, ‘If owners knew better, they would do better.’ I try to equip my pet parents with the tools and education necessary to provide the best at home care to my patients.” Brown attended Point Park University and lives in Swisshelm Park.

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Blake Dube

Founder and Chief Executive Office, Aeronics, Inc.
27 years old

Blake Dube's award-winning startup Aeronics was originally focused on creating more portable oxygen systems for people with respiratory disease. But that scope expanded slightly when a local veterinarian told Dube and his co-founders that animals and their caretakers could benefit as well. The result of that conversation was Pawprint Oxygen, a small, portable oxygen delivery system made by Aeronics for vets or owners whose pets are in emergency respiratory distress. “We love working with veterinarians and pet owners,” Dube told The Incline, “and seeing Pawprint Oxygen grow and help pets has been incredibly rewarding.” Dube attended Pitt and lives in the South Side.

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Melissa Ernst

Development Coordinator, Animal Friends
31 years old

While working in veterans services after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Melissa Ernst combined her two passions: helping her veterans with PTSD, depression, or anxiety and animal therapy. During that time, Ernst got involved with Animal Friends. Two years later, Melissa transitioned into full-time employment at Animal Friends where she serves as the development coordinator and assists with the Pets for Vets, a program that pairs veterans with specially trained companion animals. Ernst is a graduate of the Pitt and lives in McCandless with her dogs, Oden, a long-haired German Shepherd, and Ares, a rescued pit-mix.


Jackie Pajan

Owner, Fur the Love of Paws and The Big Red Dog Barkery
39 years old

With her in-home pet walking and care company, Jackie Pajan says her goal is simple: “To alleviate stress, elevate well-being, and encourage good health and happiness in both people and their pets.” But it also works both ways. With her dog Ryley diagnosed with cancer, Pajan is able to help other people care for their pets through her work, something she describes as a source of personal fulfillment. “I just want to make people, and animals, feel less alone and more connected in every way that I can,” Pajan explained. “Good health, happiness, and a feeling of connection help everyone — animals and humans alike — live longer. I hope my work in this world adds to that.” Pajan attended the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and lives in Export.

Ariella Samson

Ariella Samson

Chief Veterinary Officer, Humane Animal Rescue
32 years old

As chief veterinary officer with the largest shelter in Pittsburgh, Ariella Samson cares for Pittsburgh’s homeless animals — and lots of them. Samson began as a staff veterinarian at the Humane Animal Rescue and now works as its chief veterinary officer. But beyond medical duties, Samson’s nominator said it’s her emphasis on education and progressive thinking that have helped propel the organization’s mission of caring for abandoned, neglected, and injured animals and reuniting lost pets with their caregivers or finding them new homes. Samson attended the University of Maryland and completed a specialty internship in shelter medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Squirrel Hill.


Alexis Simonow

Foster Program Manager, Humane Animal Rescue
31 years old

At-risk animals have a friend in Alexis Simonow. As foster program manager at Humane Animal Rescue, Simonow helps find homes for dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, and other animals that enter the organization's shelters on the North Side and East End. Simonow manages the Foster Animal Program, which places animals at risk in the shelter or on medication with volunteer foster parents for varying lengths of times. “The Foster Program does wonders at better allocating resources at the shelters, relieving stress on the animals, and preparing animals for adoption instead of euthanizing them,” Simonow's nominator told The Incline, adding, “Alexis is a Super Animal Advocate! I wouldn't be surprised at all if she's running the shelter in the years ahead.” Simonow attended Brookdale Community College and lives in Dormont.


Fiona Tam

Internal Medicine Specialist, Avets
39 years old

Fiona Tam grew up in Toronto and took her first veterinary job in Pittsburgh after completing her residency in 2011. But while she planned to return to Toronto, Tam fell in love with Pittsburgh and her job here, and so she decided to stay. In the years since, Tam’s patients have fallen in love with her, praising her work and bedside manner and, for example, nominating here for awards and recognitions like this. “The best part of my job is witnessing the wonders of the human-animal bond every day and being able to play a part in strengthening that relationship,” Tam said. Tam attended the University of Toronto and lives in Monroeville with her three cats — Tiggeroo, Daniel, and Towanda.


Emily Zadjura

CEO, The Foster Farm
30 years old

Emily Zadjura has built her own foster-based nonprofit rescue in Pittsburgh, working tirelessly to help animals who are homeless, stray, sick, disabled, pregnant, or feral receive the care they need. Since its inception, The Foster Farm has successfully adopted out hundreds of animals, some as far away as Puerto Rico, as well as in rural areas in the southern United States. Zadjura relies solely on donations to operate the nonprofit and does not receive any compensation for her efforts. Zadjura attended West Virginia University and lives in Swissvale.