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:

“PLEASE DO NOT THROW ANIMALS OVER THE FENCE. PLEASE USE AFTER HOURS HOLDING PEN….THANK YOU”

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?

3 thoughts on “Protecting Pets in Paradise

  1. Linda

    That was a thoughtful and well expressed observation, Mimi. I may reconsider my first instinct to stay away from shelters because of sad haunting images that I can’t erase from an overactive mind. But, your bravery will inspire me. To hear that good people have raised money for a new shelter is such encouragement – “the kindness of strangers.” Maybe, my conclusion is that animals can bring out a dark side of our nature sometimes (“Do not throw animals over the fence.”), but more often our furry angels bring out the best in us! Thank you, Mimi, for taking us on this important trip! Linda Chase

    Reply
    1. mimijo Post author

      Linda, your tender heart for animals is plain for everyone to see. Thanks for your kind comments. So far my experience in every shelter I have visited, and the one I work in, has been that they are full of caring people doing their very best for the animals. I haven’t seen an exception — and hope never to.

      Reply

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