Monthly Archives: January 2017

Protecting Pets in Paradise

The first thing my husband and I saw when we pulled up beside the chainlink fence surrounding the Key West campus of the Florida Keys SPCA (FKSPCA) was a sign:


I sat for a moment staring at the sign in disbelief. The “please” and “thank you” were a quaint touch, suggesting that anyone who would contemplate pitching an innocent creature over a 6’ fence topped with three rows of barbed wire deserved and would respond to courtesy.

After 3 years volunteering in animal rescue it seems that there are still things people do to animals that can shock me.

Key West is an incredibly beautiful place, sunny and warm year round, surrounded by vast expanses of aquamarine ocean and blessed with an abundance of marine and terrestrial wildlife. But even in paradise, animals still suffer at the hands of humans and need the protection of committed advocates like those I met at the FKSPCA.

Inside the shelter’s main office, which was housed in a small, rather ramshackle building, I was warmly greeted by a pleasant young man named Del, the administrative assistant. I mentioned to him that I was a shelter volunteer visiting Key West from Tennessee and always like to pay a call to shelters in new places, to see how they do things and what we at our facility might learn from them.

He introduced me to Tiffany Burton, the volunteer coordinator, and for the next half hour or so she graciously answered my many questions. As we stood talking on the porch behind the main building she explained the functions of the motley assortment of structures and enclosures that made up the shelter.

There were fenced gravel yards for the dogs, shaded by large umbrellas and palm trees, and furnished with splash pools, toys, and dog houses for protection from the sun. I was happy to see a pair of canine pals frolicking in one of these pens.

Two rustic buildings housed, respectively, the shelter’s cat colony, and its rabbit and gerbil residents. A long cinderblock ward was where the adoptable dogs were kept, some 40 of them at any given time. A white trailer functioned as the medical clinic, where, Tiffany explained, visiting vets performed spay and neuter surgeries and other treatments.

The facility opened in the late 90s and, like so many structures in this island community (except for those possessed by the wealthy), had apparently been patched together as their occupants’ needs evolved or exigencies demanded, and as nature issued her repeated challenges of blazing sun, corrosive salt air, and the occasional ferocious hurricane.

But also like every other dwelling in this island paradise, whether a homeless person’s tent or a lavishly renovated bungalow in Key West’s Old Town, the shelter was surrounded by extravagantly gorgeous, oversized vegetation. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Palm fronds clattered gently over our heads in a balmy breeze, casting alternating shafts of sun and shade.

Clearly the shelter, which serves some 2000 animals per year, has outgrown its facility. But, Tiffany told me proudly, just a quarter mile down the road a new shelter is being constructed. It is to be a state of the art, multimillion dollar structure for which the SPCA has already raised $7 million; $1 million more is needed to buy equipment and furnishings. The projected opening date is December of this year.

We talked about the shelter’s challenges and where most of their animals come from. “This is a big military area,” she said, “with Coast Guard and Navy bases. Sometimes when people are transferred here they have no choice but to live in military housing because real estate prices are so outrageous. If they have dogs that the military consider to be pit bulls or pit mixes, they can’t keep them on base. So we get them.”

This was yet another example, I thought sadly, of the breed-specific restrictions that primarily target pit bulls and their owners. Major animal welfare organizations like the ASPCA (not affiliated with the FKSPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) oppose these laws, maintaining that pit bulls are no different from – no better or worse, no more inherently vicious or amiable, than – any other dogs. (Please see my earlier post, “At last…the definitive word on pit bulls,” for a more thorough discussion of this issue.)

Tiffany shared my chagrin at this state of affairs, and also informed me of the unhappy fact that Miami-Dade County, their nearest big neighbor some 158 miles to the north, is one of the few municipalities in the U.S. that has a total ban on any pit bull type dogs or mixes.

Another challenge that this shelter faces, she said, is “a high number of transient pet owners and individuals who come here with their pets looking for the good life, but sometimes they can’t make it and wind up homeless. They can’t care for their animals, and so they surrender them to us.”

Given the warm climate year round, feral cats also proliferate. “But we have people all around town who watch over the cat colonies,” Tiffany said. “They let us know about any problems they see, so we can address them.” The shelter also has a TNR (Trap, Neuter and Release) program to keep feral cat populations under control.

Although it varies seasonally, the shelter’s volunteer program is active, with, typically, around 100 volunteers at any given time. “Less in the summer, with the heat, and more in the winter when the snowbirds are here,” Tiffany said. For now, volunteer dog walkers have to use the road outside the shelter where, she admitted, there are lots of distractions and safety concerns – cars and bikes, wildlife that the dogs react to, and little shade. I reflected on how fortunate we are at our shelter to have large exercise yards and a shaded, fenced woodland trail to give dogs and their handlers a safe walking environment. I hope the new Florida facility will include some similarly accommodating spaces.

I asked Tiffany if they transported many animals to other shelters and rescue organizations. This is an important part of our shelter’s mission; it relieves overcrowding and relocates many of our animals to places where they are more likely to be adopted, such as cities in the Northeast and the Midwest which, partly because of strict spay and neuter laws, don’t have enough adoptable pets to meet the local demand.

Because of the Key West shelter’s remote location, she said, they don’t do a great deal of animal relocation, but sometimes they will send dogs like huskies, who do poorly in the tropical environment with their heavy coats and huge need for exercise, to rescue partners elsewhere. She mentioned one outstanding local hero in animal transport – Jeff Bennett, an aviator who flies missions for a rescue organization called Pilots N Paws, ferrying animals in his private plane from the Keys to points north. “He just completed transporting his 5,000th animal,” she said.

At that point Tiffany had to leave to train some new volunteers, but she invited my husband and me to tour the facility on our own. We visited the bunny house and the cat colony building, chatting with the friendly staff members there. Then we headed toward the place I was most interested to see – the dog ward.

It was dark inside, and cool. Each kennel, though old with rusted wire gates and worn paint on the walls and cement floor, was clean and stocked with new toys and raised beds for the dogs. I walked along the two rows of kennels, getting a welcome vacation fix of wags, licks and cold-nose nudges.

I left with the sense that this shelter was run by caring, capable animal professionals who, despite the limitations of the facility, were doing the most with what they had. It’s heartening to think that the next time we visit this area we are likely to find them settled in a new shelter that will make everyone’s – humans’ and animals’ – lives easier, safer and happier.

Rendering of FKSPCA new shelter facility

And, while I’m contemplating a rosier future, let me expand my vision to include the hope that no one will ever again consider tossing a terrified animal over a tall fence topped with flesh-tearing barbs. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Volunteers Do It for Love – Part II

In my last post I gave a tour of the animal shelter where I volunteer, to show the wide variety of roles that my fellow volunteers fill onsite.

But outside the building, throughout the community, countless people are donating their time, passions and talents, day and night, year round, for the benefit of shelter animals. Many of their contributions are unrecognized, unsung, and they deserve to be celebrated.

The following are only the ones I know about. I’m sure there are others; please leave a comment spotlighting any I have neglected to mention!

Foster partners open their homes to dogs and cats who are too young, sick or scared to handle the stress of shelter life. Sometimes these needy creatures require hand-feeding and tending round the clock; other times they just need a chance to grow stronger and more confident in a home environment. And then (this part amazes me most of all) the foster caregivers, who have come to love these animals and have nurtured them so devotedly, give them up to go to their forever homes.

Several staff members do double duty, too, as volunteer caregivers, taking vulnerable animals home with them at night after their intensive shelter workdays.

A volunteer “publicity team” gets shelter dogs and cats into the public eye. Photographers capture each animal’s distinctive personality. Writers create appealing bios for each dog and cat, or newsletters that bring the shelter and its mission into wider awareness. A graphic designer uses these pictures and words to make eye-catching posters for every adoptable animal, posting them on Instagram and Facebook. Since many potential adopters search online for pets, these combined efforts pay off in increased adoptions.

Volunteer drivers, with nerves of steel and selective hearing to tune out the barking, howling and mewling, transport our animals to other rescue organizations, to free up space in our shelter and give those animals a better chance for adoption. These “chauf-furs” (sorry, couldn’t resist!) also ferry dogs to the grooming salon, or take dogs and cats to local emergency vets for tests, like x-rays, that our shelter can’t provide.

Many volunteers enjoy taking shelter dogs to special events – concerts, parades, school and office visits. Some athletic types give the more energetic dogs a break from institutional life through the shelter’s Trailblazer program. A hike or a run in a beautiful natural setting allows shelter dogs the chance to exercise not only their bodies but all of their sensory capacities, and also gets them comfortable with human companionship. They come back exhausted and happy, proving the adage that “a tired dog is a good dog.”

A group of long-time volunteers run a “concierge adoption service,” which, free of charge, matches adopters with compatible dogs drawn, not just from our shelter, but also from all rescue organizations in the area. These dedicated animal advocates spend time interviewing the prospective pet parents and introducing them to dogs who meet their stated criteria — or who might just turn out to be a surprisingly good match.

And let’s not forget the the board members who donate their valuable managerial and financial expertise to overseeing the running of the shelter. Or the many, many individuals who contribute supplies, ranging from plastic grocery bags, to benches for the exercise yards, to toys and bedding for the dog and cat kennels, to dog and cat food for our program benefiting needy pet owners, to the always-needed monetary contributions.

Why do they/we do it? Recently I met an impressive woman, a retired pediatrician and new volunteer. We shared lunch in the shelter’s break room, and she told me that when she retired she found herself missing a purpose in life. That changed when she began helping out with the shelter’s weekly vaccination clinic.

Other retired doctors and veterinarians find new outlets for their skills at animal health events in our city’s underserved neighborhoods, and some even go into homeless camps to treat the pets of people whose animals are the world to them but who have no resources to care for them.

I, too, have found in my semi-retirement a new mission volunteering for the shelter, using my established interests in writing and editing, as well as developing new competencies in dog handling, animal transport, and knowledge of animal welfare issues.

But several of my fellow volunteers don’t have the luxury of determining their own schedules; they’re working full time and have busy home lives as well, with young families and their own pets. And still they give great tracts of their scarce leisure time to the shelter animals.

What motivates us all is love.

In short, whatever your gifts, interests and lifestyle, you can help shelter animals. All you need is the heart for it, the ability to commit a certain amount of time, and a willingness to follow the organization’s rules. You’ll reap great benefits: new friends — human, canine and feline (and sometimes even equine, avian, porcine, murine [rats], lapine [rabbits], reptilian…) You’ll gain new skills and knowledge.

Best of all, you’ll get the deep satisfaction of knowing that you are making a real difference in the lives of vulnerable animals and, not least of all, the humans who love them and may need a helping hand with their care.

Volunteers Do It For Love – Part I

Have you ever thought you’d like to volunteer at an animal shelter, and wondered what kinds of opportunities are available and what your qualifications have to be? Take a tour with me on this January Saturday around our busy municipal shelter, to see the many roles volunteers play. Maybe one of these jobs will seem just right for you.

Entering the building we’re greeted by Lois at the information table inside the front door. Her job is to welcome newcomers and direct them to the staff member or volunteer who can help them. It’s a perfect job for a gregarious person who loves animals but prefers a less physical role than hands-on caregiving.

We pass the supply room next and I wave to Barbara, who is washing the morning food bowls. There are loads of housekeeping chores in a shelter – washing and folding laundry; cleaning and sanitizing dishes, toys and litter boxes; keeping the kennels and outdoor yards picked up. Having volunteers do these things frees the staff to focus on the skilled aspects of animal care. As I scoop poop from the gravel yards outside, I may joke about glamour jobs or my college degree, but knowing that my dog friends will be much more comfortable and healthier as a result of my efforts makes these humble tasks something I’m glad to do.

Next is the cat room, and I call a greeting to Susan, who’s sitting beside the cat kennels, patting and talking to her charges. As always, she recognizes my voice and greets me by name. Susan is blind, and comes once a week to spend several hours helping to socialize the cats. Another volunteer who does the same thing is Jean, 89. She faithfully shows up every Wednesday and cuddles and plays with the kittens, especially the ones who are shy and fearful. These women prove that every animal lover can make a valuable contribution, regardless of age or physical ability.

Proceeding on past the meet and greet rooms, we see, in one, a little girl who looks about ten. She is sitting with her mother on the floor, with Petunia, one of the shelter’s most fearful dogs, lying between them. The child is reading to Petunia in a gentle, lilting voice, as the mother pats the little dog, whose eyes are half closed in apparent bliss. Our shelter has a program that encourages kids and adults to read to the animals; it helps young readers build confidence, and it helps dogs and cats grow more comfortable with people.

In the room across the hall, volunteer Tracy is talking to a couple while a puppy plays with a ball at their feet. The clipboard Tracy’s holding tells me that she’s asking the couple the adoption counseling questions on the way to finalizing their making this adorable puppy a part of their family. Some volunteers take special training to be able to process adoptions; Tracy is an ace at this matchmaking.

We go outside and nearly bump into Melanie, who is being eagerly pulled by her canine companion along the sidewalk toward the dog exercise yard. She stops his forward momentum with a chirp from a squeaker in her pocket, then has him sit and gives him a treat from her goody bag. When they move on he’s pulling less. Volunteer dog walkers, of whom I’m one, play an important role, giving the dogs a break from their kennels, one-on-one attention, and basic training. Prospective dog walkers receive an instruction class and individual guidance from an experienced mentor.

Entering one of the wards we are greeted by the barking of 24 excited dogs. Shelley is going to each kennel and giving the inhabitant a cow’s hoof or chew stick. Before the holidays she organized a mass donation of these irresistible dog treats from her fellow volunteers, so that every dog in the shelter – around 160 — would have something special to occupy him or her. In-kennel enrichment — stuffed toys, “chicksickles” (frozen chicken broth ice cubes), Kong toys filled with peanut butter, spritzes of sweet smells like mint, almond and vanilla at the gate of each kennel, and chew bones — all are critical to keep the animals from becoming bored or depressed in confinement.

Passing a kennel we’re momentarily startled to see a person inside. It’s Thomas, a high school student with a soul for dogs and a gift for handling them. He is sitting on the floor with Caesar, a big tan pit bull, draped across his lap, patting the dog as Caesar chews his new hoof. They both look perfectly relaxed. This individual attention is invaluable for shelter dogs, and it’s a great stress-buster for the human companion, too.

Our tour takes us back into the main building, where, in the Admissions department, Ginger is entering data about the morning’s animal intakes into the computer. It has been a busy day, with members of the public, as well as the shelter’s animal control officers, bringing in dogs and cats who have no protection from the 20 degree weather. Ginger helps the harried staff with the voluminous paperwork required to document every single animal’s entry into, and progress through, the shelter system.

Down the hall from Admissions, in the large “sally port” of the shelter where bulk deliveries are received, a training class is taking place. Beth and Rick, professional dog trainers, donate their time and expertise to train volunteers and staff members in teaching shelter dogs the basic manners that will help them get adopted. The couple also run play groups that give shelter dogs a much-needed chance to romp and play and burn off energy together. Rick’s secret weapon to win any dog’s cooperation and utter devotion? Chunks of pre-cooked bacon!

That wraps up our tour of the building and gives you a glimpse of some of the many ways in which volunteers serve. But offsite and behind the scenes, countless other people are constantly working on behalf of our animals, every day and many nights of the week. Next week, we’ll take a look at their vital contributions.