To the rescue
Dedicated volunteers and organizations come together to reopen animal shelter
BY WENDY DWYER
The past couple of years have been extremely challenging for everyone and navigating life in a pandemic has been no easier on those who don't have a voice. Those who died from the coronavirus often left behind beloved pets that had been their constant companions. When people lost their jobs, not only did it become a struggle to feed themselves, but often their pets suffered from scarcity and shortage, too.
Fortunately, despite a worldwide pandemic wreaking havoc on life as we all knew it, Dr. Julie Kittams and a small band of dedicated and passionate animal lovers came to the rescue and since then, more than 1,600 animals can see a glimmer of hope for a better, longer life.
In March, the newly created nonprofit organization, Sunrise Humane Society, took over the operation of the former Humane Society of St. Lucie County and its shelter on Savannah Road in Fort Pierce. Not only did the crew from SHS inherit a shelter that had undergone renovation but was still in need of additional repairs and renovation, it also had to struggle with trying to rebuild the trust and respect of the community it serves.
Five years earlier, Kittams, a veterinarian who hails from Alaska but fell in love with the Florida sunshine, used her savings to create a nonprofit organization called Operation SOS [Sterilization Outreach Services], a mobile low-cost spay/neuter clinic that has sterilized more than 15,000 dogs and cats in St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties since its inception.
"It took that long for us to become financially stable," Kittams says of Operation SOS. "During that time, 60 percent of the sterilizations we did were on rescue animals and 40 percent of our time was helping serve the general public.
"We connected with so much of the animal rescue community and became aware that the animal welfare community - organizations whose mission is to help advocate and care for animals, were operating well beyond their caring capacity."
When the original Humane Society of St. Lucie County's shelter closed, the municipalities it served created a shelter, but it wasn't in the business of accepting animals that were dropped off when someone's new landlord wouldn't allow pets; were brought in when an owner died and no one could step in; or were left at the roadside when someone decided they no longer wanted the responsibility of caring for an animal.
Kittams says that the dozens of incredibly caring animal welfare organizations in St. Lucie County were stretched well beyond their capacity to provide adequate and compassionate care.
"Any organization can only handle so much, and that's what was happening here," Kittams says. "Local rescue shelters were being overwhelmed, and understandably, the City of Fort Pierce and St. Lucie County did not want to be in the business of animal sheltering, but the need was tremendous and it looked like it would go on forever.
"In an effort to provide for the animals, we put together a proposal to start a new nonprofit, founded with the sole goal of administrating an open admission humane society at the Savannah Road location," she explains.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, "An open-admission humane society means that the shelter takes in any animal in need, including very elderly, ill, aggressive, or injured animals that may not be able to be rehomed."
As part of the contract with the City of Fort Pierce, Kittams says Sunrise Humane Society also provides housing for animals involved in legal cases, like animals whose owners are incarcerated, hospitalized, or charged with neglect, abuse or hoarding of animals. On March 1, 2021, with the blessing and support of the Fort Piece City Commission, SHS took over the shelter.
Immediately, volunteers and staff members began scrubbing, painting, and renovating the shelter.
"The shelter had been in great disrepair, and the municipalities put hundreds of thousands of dollars into investing in repairs for the major issues," Kittams says. "Kennels were re-epoxied, light fixtures were replaced and the building's interior and exterior repainted. But what was even more important was the strength of the relationship we have been able to forge with the City of Fort Pierce."
Kittams says that strong partnership means that the city animal control officers will have their offices within the shelter to do their paperwork.
"We can work together as a team to help the animals and the community we all serve," she says.
Passionately dedicated to the cause, the board of directors for Operation SOS used a generous bequest as a loan to help keep Sunrise Humane Society afloat until it could get up and running.
"Not only did we reopen a shelter that had been closed," Kittams says, "but the gift will continue to give in the community. Some people give a donation for one spay or neuter. What this bequest did was allow us to use it as an investment to help create healthy cats and dogs.
"The reality is that the public typically goes to the humane society for spay and neuter services, and when the original Humane Society of St. Lucie County closed, that service was lost. Part of our goal is to get a spay/neuter clinic in the shelter at SHS, but our budget is very small, so we operate one day at a time, and I am so proud of our tiny staff for their dedication and service."
And proud she should be - since it opened, the shelter has moved more than 1,600 animals through its doors and projects moving 2,200 animals annually.
"We learned a lot really quickly," Kittams says, "and we are proud of what we've accomplished. Despite being an open admission shelter, we have a less than 7 percent euthanasia rate, which also classifies us as a no-kill shelter."
Ten percent is the cutoff for a kill shelter. This distinction is important to Kittams, who says shelters in municipalities are often wrongly accused of taking animals in only to euthanize them.
"We have 127 kennels at SHS," Kittams says, "and they are all always full. Animals stay here as long as it takes to get them adopted; sometimes it's a day and some have been here for over a year waiting to find a forever home."
On a weekly basis, Sunrise Humane Society averages two adoptions a day. Kittams says SHS has very accommodating adoption requirements, meaning that potential owners need not be homeowners or have giant yards, explaining that, "National studies have shown that more stringent barriers to adoption rarely change the success of the adoption outcome."
Prior to being adopted, each animal is assessed medically, surgically and behaviorally. Much of the legwork being done falls to committed volunteers, something they can always use more of, according to Kittams.
"We welcome volunteers with any skill level," Kittams says, "whether it's the ability to play with the cats or clean their living area, assist with the mountains of laundry a shelter produces, help with fundraising, or provide handyperson services for general maintenance around the shelter."
Other volunteers can assist by taking animals to a variety of public events to help find them homes.
And since she knows the question will be asked, she preemptively adds, "Yes, it's true that approximately 90 percent of our dogs are what are known as bully breeds, some permutation of pit bull. And every one of them is pre-assessed for behavior, so while we can't guarantee your new dog won't ever pee on the floor, we can promise that if the adoption isn't working out, SHS will gladly take it back."
When asked about the reputation of bully breeds, she shares the story of the Loughney family, as well as a photo of their newest member, Apollo, resting peacefully with his new best friend, the family's 4-year-old Jack.
"As a shelter vet," Kittams says, "the greatest reward is watching any dog, regardless of breed, age, or size, become part of a family, and I'm so glad we have a chance to create that kind of magical moment every day at Sunrise Humane Society."
March 09, 2022
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