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Alachua County animal shelters weather Hurricane Ian, find ‘silver linings’

Florida Rottweiler Rescue Ranch owner Joe Pimentel gives some attention to a pair of rottweiler sisters that are going to be adopted in a few hours. “They’re very sweet,” he said. “They’re attention hogs.” (Siena Duncan/WUFT News)
Florida Rottweiler Rescue Ranch owner Joe Pimentel gives some attention to a pair of rottweiler sisters that are going to be adopted in a few hours. “They’re very sweet,” he said. “They’re attention hogs.” (Siena Duncan/WUFT News)

As soon as the staff members at North Central Florida Humane Society knew a hurricane could hit Gainesville, they dropped everything to dedicate all their time to emptying their animal shelter, Margot DeConna said.

DeConna is the organization’s director of advancement. The staff started calling people who had fostered in the past and volunteers who were currently fostering to take animals who were in the shelter: about 150 dogs and a few cats, she said.

They began on Sep. 24. By Sep. 27, a few days before Hurricane Ian was predicted to hit Gainesville, they had emptied the building. All of the animals were in foster homes. And they can assume between 25% and 40% of those animals won’t be coming back to the shelter, DeConna said.

“It’s sort of one of the silver linings of any time we’ve had to empty our shelter completely,” DeConna said.

Events like the hurricane tend to be convincing when the organization asks for people to step up and foster, DeConna said.

The Humane Society’s requirement for anyone fostering an animal is that he or she keep them for two weeks minimum. During that time, it’s common for a foster home to turn into a ‘foster failure’ where a person decides to adopt the animal, DeConna said.

“That’s the best possible thing that can happen,” she said.

Even if the animals aren’t adopted, DeConna said, being outside of the shelter is a good thing for them.

“It gives the pets a fresh start,” she said. “They’re more likely to get adopted after this because they’re getting that break, they’re getting that socialization.”

The process of emptying the organization's shelter was developed in 2017 for Hurricane Irma. Since then, the shelter has replicated it for a few more hurricanes and during March 2020, to allow staff to quarantine during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This strategy was also replicated by Alachua County Animal Resources and Care with its animal shelter. It only requires one week of fostering, and it was able to send 42 dogs to homes over the span of Tuesday and Wednesday due to the hurricane. For those fostering, the shelter is waiving adoption fees at the moment.

Sarah Gilley is the Alachua County shelter’s education, volunteerism, and outreach coordinator. As of Saturday, she’s had five hurricane foster homes express interest in adopting, and four people offer to keep fostering long term.

“Ten out of 40 dogs are getting out of here long term,” she said. “We’re very excited about that.”

This time, the process of emptying a shelter was especially important for the Humane Society shelter because its roof had been having problems since 2019. The Humane Society is currently fundraising for a new one. DeConna was concerned that there could be leakage or that the animals could be exposed to the wind if the roof didn’t hold, she said.

However, Florida Rottweiler Rescue Ranch had already begun preparations for the storm. The shelter for rottweilers and other large dog breeds recently moved to Gainesville four months ago from Dover, Florida, after frequent flooding made the Dover location unsafe for the dogs.

Joe Pimentel, owner of the shelter and one of three staff members, said they built the new location to avoid those problems. They can’t evacuate, he said, because they have 24 dogs that are ‘sanctuaries’-- they aren’t up for adoption due to high levels of aggression. On top of that, they have about 20 dogs up for adoption. The shelter doesn't have a way to transport all of them safely, he said.

Instead, he built the shelter so it can withstand natural disasters like hurricanes. It can get its water from two different sources-- well water and the Murphree Water Treatment Plant. If one stops working, he can flip a switch that changes their water source, he said. They also are building solar panels and are looking into electric generators so they’re prepared for the power to go out during hurricanes.

“You do the best you can, get ready, and pray no one gets hurt,” Pimentel said. “But we lucked out.”

No damages came out of the storm for the shelter, he said. In fact, they let the dogs out to enjoy the cooler weather and the rain because the winds didn’t end up being dangerous.

“They were out there just having a blast,” he said.

Pimentel said that strategies used by shelters like the Humane Society and the county can be harmful for dogs and families. Fostering an animal straight away can detract from valuable time spent figuring out what kind of home the animal needs, he said. His shelter has a 30-day minimum for intakes, which means a dog must be there for about a month before it can go up for adoption.

“They never show their true personality when they first get here,” he said. “They’ll either act real reactive or real submissive, and then within 30 days their true personality comes out.”

Siena is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.