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Santa Rosa’s shelter crisis is a result of communitywide animal issue

Tuesday afternoon at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds, Brandi Winkleman, president and executive director of the local animal advocacy nonprofit,A Hope, is standing in an outside kennel assessing one of the 80-plus dogs taken in at the county shelter.

The dog, Matzi, is sweet, but a little scared. He has a large mass on his front right leg. Winkleman has become attached to another dog, Calypso. When she arrived at the fairgrounds, Calypso's nails were so long she couldn’t walk. She has patches of fur missing from an extreme case of dermatitis.

“When we finally trimmed her nails, it was like we gave her a new life,” said Winkleman. “She was so excited to walk on her own.”

For the past week, the Santa Rosa County Animal Shelter, along with dozens of volunteers from animal welfare groups and the community, have been assessing, walking, bathing, and tending to the needs of more than 80 dogs who have been surrendered from a local rescue group.

About 27 dogs have been taken into the already-packed shelter. And another roughly 60 are being housed at the fairgrounds in kennels. It’s one of the largest intakes the shelter has had in the past four years, said Sarah Whitfield, public information officer for the county.

“But really, one time is too many,” she said.

Starting today, the public can meet the dogs at the fairgrounds, located at 8604 Bobby Brown Rd. from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and again on Thursday and Friday. as well as 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26.

Click here to see photos of adoptable dogs

The Santa Rosa County Animal Shelter has been working in recent years on a culture change. They put an end to their ban on “bully breeds,” they hired a veterinarian, Dr. Megan Arevalo, and they developed a policy to reduce intake by working with owners on what they need to keep pets at home.

“We have been a no-kill shelter since 2019, we have more fosters than ever and more dogs in foster homes,” said Whitfield. “But we remain at capacity. It’s definitely a community problem.”

“People need to be responsible pet owners,” she added. “Spay and neuter your pets, provide adequate care, and don’t take a pet in unless it’s a forever commitment.”

Winkleman said these 80 dogs are a symptom of the county’s animal problems and not the cause.

Brandi Winkleman of A Hope, with Calypso.
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Brandi Winkleman of A Hope, with Calypso.

“It’s knowing what your capacity of care is,” she said. “These dogs were pulled from shelters because they were at risk (of euthanasia) because someone had a bleeding heart.”

Volunteers estimate about 70% of the dogs are pit-bull mixes, which just a few years ago wouldn’t have been taken into the shelter. While many of the dogs from the intake are fixed and microchipped, most need immediate medical attention.

An education

Ariana Hill of Best Friends Animal Society, a national nonprofit agency that helps restructure animal shelters, said many communities with full shelters lack the information and resources to make necessary changes.

Spay-and-neuter ordinances, for example, work in some areas to help reduce the animal population so much in fact that they transport animals from around the country to fill their shelters.

“But you can’t have a spay-and-neuter law without a spay-and-neuter clinic,” said Hill.

That’s been a major hurdle in Northwest Florida. In 2015, the Pensacola Humane Society opened its Barbara Grice Memorial Spay and Neuter Clinic thanks in part to a $104,500 grant from IMPACT100. It offered a low-cost option for spay and neuter for cats and dogs with services all under $100. But the clinic has been closed since 2021 due to staffing issues, according to the Pensacola Humane website.

“It’s because of the veterinarian shortage going right now,” said Winkleman. “It’s not about finances, time or space, or anything like that.”

It’s all part of the larger workforce shortage in the country. But because of the time and money it requires to become a vet, it’s even harder to fill those gaps. At a local vet office, the average wait time to schedule a spay or neuter surgery is at least three weeks. Once kitten season begins in the spring, the wait time will increase. Shelters and rescue groups have been pooling resources to help get animals fixed.

Winkleman has been arranging transports to Operation Spay Bay, a low-cost clinic in Panama City, for years and has helped fix thousands of cats and hundreds of dogs. A handful of organizations arrange transports to clinics in Alabama and Mississippi.

She’s been trying to build a low-cost clinic in Milton since 2017.

“As helpful and amazing as it is that (Operation Spay Bay) is doing that for us, I always feel like we’re taking spots away from people who live in Panama City,” said Winkleman.

She has the land purchased and a private donor willing to help, but building costs (as well as the vet shortage) have delayed her plans.

“Our first quotes came in at over $600,000 for the building itself, which started at $221,000 just two years ago,” she said.

Changing the culture

Niki Dawson, director of emergency response at Guardians of Rescue — also known as “doggy FEMA” — came down from New Jersey to help with the dog intake. Other volunteers from the organization come from Montana and Texas. This is the third case she’s worked in a month.

Dawson said the South is “always on our radar.” There are different attitudes toward animals, she said.

“My parents are from Chattanooga, Tennessee. My dad had a hunting dog chained up outside,” she said. “The culture is just different (in the South). Pets aren’t always seen as a family member. You see a lot of heartworm-positive dogs. Rescues become overwhelmed and can’t keep up their standard of care.”

“This is pretty typical,” she said of the intake.

What’s not typical, Dawson points out, is the response. She credits the county and volunteers for the efforts of the past week.

“I’ve never seen a more organized response to a case,” she said. “I’m impressed.”

Rescues often feel the pressure to take in everything. But adoptions have slowed.

“At the beginning of COVID, shelters were empty,” said Dawson. “Now, we’re seeing the pendulum swing the other way. Even shelters in Northeast where we transport animals are at capacity.”

Groups like A HOPE work to support shelters and rescues are doing everything from fostering animals to donating blankets and toys. Every bit of help makes a difference.

“We need them to be functional,” Winkleman said. “If a shelter is struggling then that means more sick animals; if they don’t have enough toys that mean more behavior problems. Everybody does something.”

All this makes animal advocates tired.

“I’ll tell you what. I’ve been crying my eyes out more often than I can count lately and I’m not a crier,” said Winkleman. “It’s a heavy load.”

Ways to help:

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.