“Listen, you have to eat,” said Dr. Cynda Crawford. Cradled in her left hand was a tiny puppy who wasn’t yet weaned. Crawford was attempting to bottle-feed the pup while at the same time answering questions about animals up for adoption and overseeing the second day of activity at the Adoption Center at Villa Michelle. “If you don’t eat, you won’t grow big enough to be adopted,” she warned the tiny ball of fur.
Crawford, the Maddie’s Clinical Assistant Professor of Shelter Medicine at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine (UF CVM) was one member of a small army of shelter medicine experts from UF who spent several long days at Villa Michelle, located in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. Joining Crawford were Dr. Julie Levy, the Fran Marino Endowed Professor of Shelter Medicine Education; Dr. Sarah Kirk, Adjunct Lecturer, Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program; Dr. Jill Kirk; Cameron Moore, Program Manager for the Million Cat Challenge; fourth year students Laura Espinosa, Torri Cicchirillo, and Jenny Moriera; and Shelter Medicine intern Dr. Meaghan Mielo.
The trip, supported by the Humane Society of the United States, Petco Foundation, Petsmart Charities, Maddie’s Fund, and private philanthropy, was the third such venture for outreach and collaboration with Villa Michelle and other shelters in Puerto Rico.
The largest animal shelter on the west coast of Puerto Rico, Villa Michelle has been overwhelmed with animals since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island last fall. Consistently dealing with overcrowding, Villa Michelle needed support from experts like the UF team to help reduce disease outbreaks among the shelter animals as well as massive efforts to vaccinate, spay and neuter, and encourage adoptions.
“We are eager to collaborate with shelters like Villa Michelle,” Levy said. “Not only is this an incredible learning opportunity for our students in the shelter medicine clerkship, but we can also truly influence the way Villa Michelle handles everything from intake and record-keeping to adoptions.”
From the moment they arrived last week, Espinosa, Cicchirillo, Moriera, and Mielo were immersed in learning the shelter’s operations, organizing animal records, and preparing the animals for adoption. Their hard work would culminate in the largest adoption effort ever held at Villa Michelle – a two-day event known as “Evento de Mega Adopcion.”
Heavily promoted in Mayaguez and surrounding communities, the adoptathon would be the first time that Villa Michelle would attempt to find homes for so many of the 325-plus animals at the shelter during one event.
No one could have predicted the community’s response. The standing-room-only traffic during the first day of the event was eventually repeated on the second day. From children cuddling kittens to adults testing out new companions on leashes, animals just kept leaving the shelter. As the UF team hustled through vaccination records and adoption paperwork, they dispensed advice in both Spanish and English to the crowd. “You might want to use a treat to coax him along on the leash,” Mielo said to a family trying to walk a shy dog. “Try not to pull too hard.”
By the end of day two of the adoption event, there was cause for real celebration. The tally of adopted animals stood at 206 – more than the shelter would normally place in four to six months. It also adds up to 206 lives saved. As the island continues to recover, booming populations of shelter animals often face a bleak future, or no future at all. But, “Evento de Mega Adopcion” is certainly proof that with the right factors in place, such as reduced adoption fees and free vaccinations, every animal has the potential to find a new home.
“It’s easy for shelters to get caught up in the day-to-day struggle,” said Crawford. “Our hope is that by helping them learn innovative shelter management, we can give them a view of what is truly possible.”
Photos and video courtesy *shannon jax productions*