Jax Nonprofit Saves Animals By Helping Low-Income Pet Owners And Strays

Feb 5, 2019

More than 4,100 cats and dogs are killed every day in animal shelters across the U.S. - nearly 1.5 million every year - but a Jacksonville-based organization claims to have an effective method to bring those numbers down and its model is being exported to communities across the country.

First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP) is a nonprofit with the goal of keeping cats and dogs from going to and being killed in shelters. Founder and CEO Rick DuCharme said they have a proven formula:

  • Help low-income pet owners.
  • Get animals out of shelters and into homes.
  • Make sure feral and outdoor cats are spayed and neutered.

He said FCNMHP never turns away pets in need, regardless of an owner's ability to pay. “That decreases the number of economic euthanasias happening in our community. It also decreases the number of pets being relinquished to local shelters due to medical costs that the owners can’t afford,” said DuCharme.

A woman walking her dog into First Coast No More Homeless Pet's veterinary clinic on Cassat Ave. in Jacksonville.
Credit Brendan Rivers / WJCT News

FCNMHP performed more than 25,000 spay and neuter operations in 2018. About 20,000 of those were free or subsidized. FCNMHP sees about 9,000 pets every month and hundreds of those animals’ owners need financial help to cover treatment. FCNMHP provides about $25,000 in donated medical services every month at its veterinary hospitals.

Stormy is one of many animals to benefit from those discounted services. Stormy is a cat suffering from a severe eye injury that recently showed up on Dorinda Parker’s doorstep.

“The lady across the street, a good friend of mine, she had passed away and she had her cats,” Parker explained. “This one had taken up over there and she was caring for it. After she passed,  it had been coming over to my house. He was just so loving, I couldn’t stand it.”

“My dog of 17 years passed away last year and it took awhile to get over it,” she went on to say. “Now that he [Stormy] has come into my life, I’m very blessed and feel so much happier now, just because it’s unconditional love.”

Jamie Thomas (left) and Dorinda Parker (right) with Stormy the cat inside a waiting room at First Coast No More Homeless Pet's veterinary clinic on Cassat Ave.
Credit Brendan Rivers / WJCT News

But Parker didn’t think she could afford treatment for Stormy’s eye. She spent some time researching options and came across FCNMHP, so she decided to bring Stormy in to see if the organization could help.

After speaking with one of FCNMHP’s veterinarians, Parker was told she qualified for financial assistance. On top of treating Stormy’s eye, FCNMHP offered to provide four months worth of flea treatment.

“He [the veterinarian] is very positive that he [Stormy] is going to lead a perfectly normal life,” Parker said smiling.

According to FCNMHP’s Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Barker (yes, that is her real name), Stormy’s treatment plan would have cost hundreds of dollars at a general practice veterinary hospital.

“We have over 21 veterinarians that are a part of our organization, whether they work in our affordable veterinary clinics or in our spay and neuter department,” Barker explained.

She said FCNMHP operates one of the largest spay and neuter clinics in the country, and it takes a lot of people to keep up with those services.

In addition to offering spay and neuter services to owned pets, FCNMHP works with rescue and shelter groups to operate the Feral Freedom program in Duval County.

A feral cat being prepped for surgery at First Coast No More Homeless Pet's Spay/Neuter Clinic.
Credit First Coast No More Homeless Pets

“All of the feral and community cats, we do free spay or neuters,” Barker explained. “We make sure they’re up to date with all of their medical needs and we make sure that they’re released back into their outdoor environment where they can continue to live out their natural life.”

According to FCNMHP, when the Feral Freedom program was introduced in 2008, it was the nation’s first public-private collaboration with the goal of saving all feral, stray and community cats that ended up in shelters. Since then, FCNMHP says the program has saved about 30,000 cats from being euthanized in Jacksonville shelters.

The organization also offers special procedure surgeries five days a week.

According to Barker, there’s a high demand for dental procedures, mass removals and soft tissue surgeries, among other things. It’s not uncommon for more than a hundred animals to be treated there in a single day, she said.

“We’re a high volume practice and that is because the demand for affordable services is so extreme,” she said.

FCNMHP’s veterinary hospital even has an ICU and an oxygen cage for critical patients, and an isolation ward for infectious diseases like canine parvovirus.

“Not a lot of local practices will even be willing to treat parvovirus, just because of the severity of the disease and usually it is very cost prohibitive for our clients to seek that treatment elsewhere,” Barker said. “During the busy season we can serve sometimes 15 and 20 patients a day that are potentially infectious and would need to be here in our isolation room.”

Barker said in most facilities vets will refer infected animals to an emergency facility or to FCNMHP. At other facilities, it could cost owners thousands of dollars to treat a critical pet with parvovirus. But at FCNMHP, treatment costs just a few hundred dollars - depending on the owner’s financial need.

“We’re finding that the majority of patients that we’re seeing are sick or critical cases these days,” said Barker. “So, it’s great that they have an alternative to emergency services and can use us at an affordable cost.”

In addition to the large veterinary hospital, FCNMHP’s main facility on Cassat Ave. in Jacksonville also has a 10,000 square foot warehouse.

Interior of First Coast No More Homeless Pet's 10,000 square foot warehouse.
Credit Brendan Rivers / WJCT News

It houses all the food collected for the Jacksonville Pet Food Bank, which serves hundreds of clients every month who need help feeding their pets. A lot of that donated pet food comes from people in the community. FCNMHP partners with several local businesses that serve as drop off locations.

Interior of First Coast No More Homeless Pet's 10,000 square foot warehouse.
Credit Brendan Rivers / WJCT News

More recently the nonprofit developed a partnership with Amazon in Jacksonville.

Related: A Look Inside Amazon’s New Jacksonville Fulfillment Center

“They’ve been a tremendous corporate partner,” Barker said. “They actually donate all of their gently damaged goods to us and it’s all high quality pet food. We’ve probably received thousands of pallets from them since we started the partnership.”

That big warehouse also houses all the equipment for FCNMHP’s Mega Pet Adoption Events, which are sponsored by the Petco Foundation - a nonprofit that helps thousands of animal welfare organizations find homes for orphaned pets and helps fund spay and neuter efforts, animal assisted therapy programs and educational programs.

Related: Hundreds Of Cats And Dogs Up For Adoption At Jacksonville Fairgrounds Through Saturday

Dogs at First Coast No More Homeless Pet's December Mega Pet Adoption Event in Jacksonville.
Credit First Coast No More Homeless Pets

“We bring over a thousand animals to the Jacksonville Fairgrounds and we partner with local rescue and shelter groups to help find those animals homes, and those are always a huge success,” explained Barker. “We can adopt anywhere from 500 to a thousand animals in that three-day weekend.”

Cats at First Coast No More Homeless Pet's December Mega Pet Adoption Event in Jacksonville.
Credit Brendan Rivers / WJCT News

Elizabeth Thornton with Nassau County Animal Services, one of the many organizations that regularly participate in FCNMHP’s Mega Pet Adoption Events, said the events are great for animals that are difficult to find a home for, like Butterscotch, who was adopted on the first day of an event this past November.

“She came in as a stray and she had a very weak immune system,” Thornton said of Butterscotch. “We tested her and she ended up having demodex on top of a food allergy.”

Butterscotch at First Coast No More Homeless Pet's December Mega Pet Adoption Event in Jacksonville.
Credit First Coast No More Homeless Pets

Demodectic mange, sometimes called demodex or red mange, is a parasite that lives in the hair follicles of dogs. It’s more prevalent in animals with immature or deficient immune systems.

Thornton said things were so bad that Butterscotch had sores from head to toe. They didn’t expect her to make it.

After weeks of treatment Butterscotch finally got well enough that they could bring her to a Mega Pet Adoption event. But Thornton said potential adoptees are wary.

“Skin issues cost so much money. You have to do this, you have to do that. So many vet visits,”  she said. “They don’t want to take home a dog that’s already going to have problems.”

Despite those challenges, a nurse saw Butterscotch on Thursday, Nov. 30, the first day of the event, and wanted to take her home.

“Butterscotch loved her,” Thornton exclaimed. “It was like a connection. She wanted to cuddle with her. Butterscotch is a big cuddler. It was great.”

“She had knowledge of how to treat infections,” Thornton said of Butterscotch’s new foster mom. “She has that compassion to care for people. Basically, us knowing that she has that knowledge made us feel better that she’s going to take care of this.”

Thornton said the huge size of the adoption event makes things much easier. “People come from all over for this,” she said.

The final count for November’s three-day Mega Pet Adoption Event in Jacksonville: 415 out of 688 animals up for adoption found a new home.

According to DuCharme, more than 17,000 cats and dogs found homes in their previous 27 Mega Pet Adoption Events.

The Humane Society of North Texas hosted its first Mega Pet Adoption Event in December under the guidance of DuCharme. Director of Communications Cassie Lackey said as far as she knows, this was the first such event ever held in the state.

“I think the Mega Adoption Event was probably a game changer for a lot of people,” she said.

At the end of the two day event, only three animals hadn’t been adopted.

“We actually were able to adopt out 872 pets into homes between the City of Fort Worth Animal Control and the Humane Society of North Texas,” she said. “This is the largest off-site event that the Humane Society of North Texas has ever participated in.”

Lackey said the event helped the Humane Society of North Texas hit a milestone. For the first time in its 114 year history, the organization adopted out 11,000 animals in a single year. The highest number they had ever reached before was 9,700 in 2017.

“We’re very grateful and very thankful to Rick [DuCharme] for all of his help and his guidance,” she said. “It was remarkable to be able to have a connection and to be able to execute it the way we did. Very grateful and very thankful to him for that.”

The Flagler Humane Society is another organization that has an ongoing partnership with FCNMHP. Executive Director Amy Carotenuto said FHS has a perfect attendance at their Mega Pet Adoption Events.

But Carotenuto says FCNMHP’s help extends well beyond the services they advertise.

“Because we have that friendship when they have excess pallets of food or medical supplies they share the wealth and they even deliver,” she said.

They even helped out during Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

“They brought down dog crates and loaned to us because we were responsible for opening up the pet friendly evacuation shelter for Flagler County,” Carotenuto said. “So we were taking care of all of our shelter animals plus, at one of the schools, we were taking care of 260 owned animals.”

“Of course, people are supposed to bring crates and they never do, so First Coast No More Homeless Pets loaned us between 50 and 80 crates... and delivered and picked up at the end,” she explained. “So not only do they help us, but they really make everything so easy for us the way they’re even able to do transport. It’s huge.”

“When Hurricane Irma ripped across the Florida peninsula we had donations that poured in, and as a convener for animal rescues and shelters, we were able to bring together so many groups,” explained Rob Levine, Chief Development Officer at FCNMHP. “We pushed out three-quarters of a million pounds of pet food, supplies and other critical materials to over 21 rescues, shelters and animal welfare organizations in the weeks and months following Hurricane Irma to help everybody recover.”

“When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle we had veterinary teams and veterinary technicians who went out and supported other organizations,” he said.

They even transported medical supplies and vaccines to areas that were affected by the storm. “They would actually go in with medical supplies and come out with animals and help with the evacuation to move them to shelters that were not in the affected area,” said Levine.

As comprehensive and widespread as FCNMHP’s efforts appear to be, they’re just one of thousands of organizations pushing to end shelter killings in the United States.

The nationwide effort called No-Kill Nationwide by 2025 aims to make the entire U.S. no-kill - meaning at least 90 percent of all animals that go into shelters survive - by 2025. It’s being led and organized by Best Friends Animal Society, a national animal welfare organization working to end the killing of dogs and cats in America’s shelters.

Right now Duval County is one of the largest no-kill communities (it is the largest in Florida), but thousands have already reached that status and more are trying to get there.

Austin, TX, has reached no-kill status. Miami-Dade is over 80 percent and getting close to the 90 percent mark. Hillsborough County, which includes the city of Tampa, is now above 70 percent.

But rural communities are struggling. In Jackson, Mississippi, for example, only 10 percent of the animals going into shelters come out alive. “That’s very common, especially in the rural areas of the country in the Southeast and Southwest,” DuCharme said.

According to DuCharme, those areas are struggling for several reasons: there’s not enough money to fund these kinds of efforts, there’s a shortage of resources to help low-income pet owners and there aren’t enough veterinarians. He says organizations like FCNMHP need to step in to help those communities achieve no-kill status.

“Right now Florida is in the top eight states for the highest kill,” said Nichole Dandrea, Social Media Community Manager at Best Friends. “It’s about a 73 percent save rate overall, but there are 73,000 pets in Florida that need to be saved each year.”

National lifesaving map.
Credit Best Friends Animal Society

“There are about 20 no-kill communities in Florida and there are 460 total communities,” she went on to say. “Through these mentorship programs, like the ones that First Coast No More Homeless Pets is offering and the Jacksonville Humane Society is offering the same, these mentorship programs are going to help put procedures in place to help these communities become no-kill.”

Related: Jacksonville Humane Society Gets $100K Grant In Effort To Make Florida A No-Kill State

The rapid decline of euthanasias in Duval County is a testament to the effectiveness of FCNMHP’s efforts.

The organization was founded in 2002. That year, nearly 34,000 animals were taken in by shelters in Duval County and more than 23,000 of them were euthanized. Since then, shelter intake has fallen by nearly 50 percent.

First Coast No More Homeless Pets service delivery versus total shelter intake and euthanasias in Duval County.
Credit First Coast No More Homeless Pets

According to DuCharme, in 2017 only 780 animals were put down in Duval County, and those cases were either medically necessary or due to behavioral issues.

DuCharme said the success in Duval County is due to a widespread commitment to reach no-kill status and collaborations between organizations like FCNMHP, Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services and the Jacksonville Humane Society.

And while smaller more rural communities are struggling to hit that 90 percent mark, DuCharme said he remains cautiously optimistic.

“There are efforts being made to make changes and to improve, and I think that’s really the exciting thing,” he said. “It shows progress that even in some of the worst counties there’s starting to be an effort made to make a difference.”

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.