University of Florida veterinary students save shelter pets

When University of Florida veterinary students announced they were going to save all of the animals at the local animal control shelter, advisors praised their spirit but warned them of potential heartache.

Alachua County Animal Services in Gainesville, Florida

The grim reality of Florida's shelters is not lost on Gainesville's veterinary students. They visit Alachua County Animal Services (ACAS) weekly as part of their shelter medicine rotation, participate in shelter research projects, and volunteer to foster pets for the local rescue groups.

The sliding economy has impacted shelters throughout the country, especially in the South. More cash-strapped families are relinquishing their animals and avoiding adopting new pets. In June, the euthanasia rate for cats at ACAS was an astounding 91 percent (410 of 450 cats admitted perished), compared to "only" 64 percent in June 2009. Dogs fared a little better; 124 of the 322 dogs that entered the shelter were euthanized, for a 39 percent euthanasia rate. Euthanasia, even of healthy animals, increased for the first time in nine years.

University of Florida veterinary students' goal

With all this in mind, faculty members like Dr. Julie Levy thought the students were being a little naïve in their goal to save all of the animals at the shelter.

"This shelter takes in hundreds of animals a month, the majority of which are euthanized in just a few days because there aren't enough homes for them," said Levy, director of University of Florida's Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program. "Previous adoption events had never resulted in more than 25 adoptions."

Not to be deterred, members of the Student Chapter of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians convinced the shelter to halt euthanasia of adoptable animals in preparation for an "adopt-a-thon" on July 17. Sophomore veterinary student Lauren Gray was in the shelter collecting samples for her summer research she saw kittens on their way to the euthanasia room. She offered to foster them until the adopt-a-thon, then contacted her classmates who came forward as well.

"In all, the vet students took home 43 kittens and adult cats until they could make their re-appearance at the event," Lauren said. "We recruited faculty volunteers to help spay and neuter more than 100 cats and dogs, tested for infectious diseases, and implanted identification microchips in the week running up to the adopt-a-thon."

$5 dog and cat adoptions

Armed with recently published research showing the success of adoptions and the depth of the subsequent human-animal bond was not correlated with the amount of adoption fees paid, the students set out to raise funds to incentivize adoptions with subsidized fees. They initially planned that the adoption fees for the first 10 animals would be only $5 (reduced from $85 for dogs and $75 for cats). When word of the plan spread, local residents joined the life-saving campaign by donating money to sponsor additional adoptions. Ultimately, local animal lover Gladys Cofrin matched all of the donations, making it possible for every animal in the shelter to be adopted for only $5.

Promoting the pet adoption event

The students hired a radio station to broadcast live from the event, and the local newspaper ran a front-page story about the plan to save the shelter animals. The community rallied to the news of the animals' plight. On the morning of the event, shelter staff arrived to find a line of families waiting at the locked gate.

The crowd was so overwhelming that the event was extended to two days in order to accommodate all of the families that wanted to adopt. In the end, 114 cats and dogs were adopted, six animals were transferred to adoption-guarantee shelters, and 11 cats remained in the foster care of students as they recovered from shelter-acquired respiratory infections.

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Photo by Sarah Kichas