There’s a famous quote by Mahatma Ghandi that is the mantra of animal lovers everywhere: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” By that standard, then Jacksonville has become a truly great city.
The proof is seen in various stats, the most impressive of which is the recent designation as the largest “no-kill” community in the nation, thanks to a dramatically reduced euthanasia rate at the city’s Animal Care and Protective Services (ACPS) shelter. The no-kill status, established by national animal welfare groups and arguably their stated pin- nacle of success, is not easy to achieve: over 90% of animals that enter a city’s shelter must make it out alive, avoiding euthanasia. For the first quarter of 2014 91.6% of all animals that entered Jacksonville’s progressive, “green” ACPS build- ing in Riverside did just that—left the shelter alive and well. There are two important parts of this equation—taking care of the animals that reach the shelter through innovative care and adoption efforts, and avoiding their getting there in the first place through pet retention efforts like financial assistance for medical care and nutrition along with pet owner education.
Jacksonville is seeing success on both sides of the equation. As recently as 2008, the city shelter’s annual intake numbers were at approximately 26,000, with only 3-4,000 of these animals making it out alive. According to ACPS Chief Nikki Harris, intake numbers were down to less than 2,000 in 2013 and euthanasia rates have decreased by an astounding 90%.
How did Jacksonville make such a dramatic change? Well, like many big things in life, “it takes a village,” quips Mary Coleman, an ACPS volunteer and passionate local animal welfare advocate. Astonished by the statistically high euthanasia rates in the early new millenium, the now high profile local non-profit organization First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP) formed in 2002 and joined forces with ACPS and Jacksonville Humane Society (JHS) to take action toward reducing the numbers.
Of course, taking action takes money, and much of the funding received by this local coalition is through grants from one of the largest national animal welfare nonprofits, the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS). Of note, BFAS supports cities around the country and believes in Jacksonville’s progress so much that they hosted their national conference here last year, marking the first time it was not held in Las Vegas.
The mission of BFAS toward animals is to “Save Them All.” They do not grant money to the city’s ACPS, but to other organizations who will in turn assist ACPS by preventing euthanasia. The key is these other parties working well together and with the shelter, and that they not duplicate their efforts or try to do it all on their own. “That’s what’s so cool about [Jacksonville’s] story. Not only are we humane and becoming no-kill, but we’re doing it together. That’s how we’ve done it,” says Meredith Tekin, FCNMHP’s marketing/events manager. Tekin has seen that this is not always the case. FCNMHP has been so successful here that they now have employees traveling the country educating other cities that are working toward a no-kill status. Cooperation is not always apparent elsewhere, so both Harris and Tekin emphasize that it is truly the key here in Jacksonville.
Having a city shelter that is willing to accept help is also key. Harris says that, “As a shelter, we accept whatever help people give us. We don’t put requirements on it.” She cites one of the groups aiding the shelter in a big way—Friends of Jacksonville Animals (FOJA). “FOJA does the heartworm treat- ments here. We don’t say, ‘We won’t accept your money unless you take a bunch of dogs from us.’ We say, ‘That’s how you can help? That’s wonderful. Thank you,’” says Harris. “And FCNMHP does a ton of medical work for us. We take all the resources that we can and accept them for how people want to help us,” she continues.
“Or can help,” says Kim Stordahl, who operates another local group assisting animals in a unique way—The Old Dog House, housing elderly dogs taken from the shelter and aid- ing in their adoptions. “I can’t deal with puppies,” Stordahl laughs. Harris jumps in to say, “But if we get overrun with puppies, JHS can take as many puppies as we can give them!”
“Hopefully enough niches are filled that it works,” says Stordahl.
Jill Mero, president of FOJA, agrees. “A lot of these dogs have different needs, so these organizations fulfill different needs. The groups come together so nicely to fix these needs and get them out of the shelter,” she says.
Mero has seen the drastic improvements in Jacksonville. She started volunteering at ACPS in 2008, when the shelter was in a different location that Mero describes as “very outdated.” “The kennels were outside and it was right across from a dog track,” she recalls. Today, not only have the facilities greatly improved, but so has the care of its animals while there. “Now we are saving bottle babies and the like, which was unheard of in 2008. We weren’t saving any dogs with any kind of issues,” Mero says.
Coleman adds that as a current volunteer at ACPS she witnesses perks for the dogs, things like daily morning walks and doggie playgroups that improve their quality of life until they can leave. “It’s nice to see the dogs outside enjoying themselves before they have to go back to their kennels and behave,” she says.
One event that in many ways helps ensure this cooperation for the greater good of the animals is Strut Your Mutt (SYM), happening for the third year on Saturday, September 6 in Riverside Park. Hosted by BFAS, SYM offers any and all local animal welfare groups the opportunity to raise funds, either for their own use or to contribute to BFAS. Each group simply becomes a partner of BFAS and registers a team for SYM that will fundraise and then participate in the walk with their dogs. BFAS provides the marketing and the logistical help to pull off this large affair that includes the dog walk—from Riverside Park to Memorial Park and back, a 5K run, and a day-long, doggie themed festival in the park.
“What’s great is it’s turnkey,” says Stordahl, “and it’s becoming one of the biggest yearly fundraisers for The Old Dog House.” Stordahl and Mero point out that they, and many other small animal welfare organizations, could not afford to put together a fundraiser like SYM on their own. “Best Friends provides our organization with all of the tools necessary for a successful walk,” Stordahl says. Mero agrees, stating that SYM is FOJA’s biggest annual fundraiser. “We rely heavily on the donations we receive from this event, and without it we would not be able to sustain our current heartworm program at the city animal shelter,” she says. “Since we are an all–volunteer organization, having an event that is not labor intensive is a huge plus. It also gives us a chance to highlight the city shelter animals, and our mission to help them.”
Last year’s SYM saw over eight hundred and eighty people and eight hundred and fifty dogs participate, raising a total of $113,390. Local animal welfare groups received $92,796 of that amount.
The success of SYM points to animal welfare efforts reaching success beyond only animal lovers. All parties involved point out that greater care of stray animals is a benefit to the community at large, relieving burdens on taxpayers through more effective animal control, and improving quality of life by keeping unsafe stray animals off the streets and allowing more people to enjoy the benefits of pet ownership.
To earn a designation as a humane city through our animal welfare efforts means that we should follow the dictionary definition of the word, “having or showing compassion or benevolence. “We all obviously want the same thing, so why not work together and pool our resources,” says Tekin, who happens to be a hometown girl. “Animal welfare is important to anyone who believes in Jacksonville.”
To keep up with the various programs and events benefiting Animal Care and Protective Services, visit their page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jaxanimalcare.
To learn more about the groups mentioned here, go to:
First Coast No More Homeless Pets: www.fcnmhp.org
Friends of Jacksonville Animals: www.friendsofjaxanimals.com
The Old Dog House: www.theolddoghouse.org
Article written by Meredith T. Matthews