By Charmaine Engelsman-Robins

This holiday season marks the end of a very rough year for our local animal rescue groups who, even in good times, struggle to survive. If ever they needed an angel, a Santa Claus or a mensch, this is the year.

Sadly, there have never been too few domestic dogs and cats at our local animal shelters. Most pets wind up there because of buyer’s remorse, owner’s inability to care for them, or because they didn’t fit in with the family.  Our shelters do what they can to take in and adopt out their populations. But this year, the economic downturn has left an unprecedented number of heartbroken families with no alternative but to surrender their pets. Shelters have insufficient space for the overflow, while funding or other resources needed to care for the animals has dwindled.

When shelters and sanctuaries are full or short on resources, they put out an emergency call asking supporters to provide temporary foster homes to animals until a space opens at their facilities.  In addition to foster homes, the rescuers also call for donations of any kind, that might help the animals or the cause. So, if you have a little leftover love this season, here are a few local organizations that could sure use some.

Crazy for Kitties

Theresa Foley worked with the Key West Cat Society for years before moving to Venice in 2006. Two years later, she started the Venice Cat Coalition with a very small budget and has operated on a shoestring ever since. The Venice Cat Coalition (VCC) works with the Animal Services division of the Sheriff’s Office and several private animal welfare groups. It addresses both community cats and adoptable strays and kittens. The organization operates from 15 to 18 volunteer foster homes to meet the needs of adoptable cats and kittens. Their ongoing trap-neuter-return (TNR) program supports colonies of community cats and their caretakers. They also place adoptable cats and kittens in forever homes and will help anyone get their cat altered.

Foley’s biggest wish this holiday season is that every adoptable cat and kitten gets a forever home with loving people who spay and neuter their pets.  To adopt a cat or kitten, or get help having a cat altered, contact VCC; they work with other agencies and have a wealth of information and resources to share.

You can also help VCC by donating dry or canned cat food, clumping litter and cat toys for the kittens. The VCC has a booth at the Venice Farmers Market where you can drop off a donation on Saturdays between 8:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m or purchase VCC T-shirts for holiday gifting.

The St. Francis Animal Rescue started out like so many others, with just a few people concerned about a few animals. In this case, it was several women trying to improve the lives of the free-roaming “canal cats” that were living along the Venice jetties in 1992. The next year the official organization was formed and registered as a non-profit. Three years later, they purchased a building at 1925 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice. Today the old building serves as a cageless shelter for about 200 resident and adoptable adult cats.

The St. Francis mission is to end the euthanasia of healthy animals. As any rescue organization will tell you, the only way to do this is by educating the public on the need to spay and neuter both owned cats as well as the free-roaming community cats that make their homes outdoors in colonies.

Since intake is up and income is down, the biggest wish for St. Francis this year is to enlist a volunteer grant writer who has experience in this field and can help apply for the funding. Secondly, they’re in need of a volunteer who is knowledgeable about construction, can take and manage bids from contractors or repairmen and follow the job through. Of course, pet supplies and volunteers are welcomed and appreciated.

If you are unable to adopt a cat, how about doing a virtual adoption? “In-house adoptions” at St. Francis allow cat lovers who can’t physically take a cat from the shelter to help one of the 150 resident cats. Your $100 contribution will provide for your feline friend, and you’ll get a photo and three personalized letters from her.

Combating Cruelty

Since its founding more than 22 years ago, Sarasota in Defense of Animals (SDA) has built a reputation for doing whatever it takes to help all kinds of animals throughout Sarasota County, including networking with 42 organizations across the country to place wild and exotic animals. The group speaks out loudly against animal cruelty and has worked to pass both ordinances and legislation that protect against it.

SDA founders Matt and Elise Matthes have been a driving force in the fight against animal cruelty. They have provided sanctuary and a permanent home to more than 300 rescued animals, including goats, sheep, pigs, geese, dogs, cats, cows and “lots of rabbits, a good many of which come from the Venice area.” The average daily cost of maintaining the sanctuary is about a dollar a day for each animal—so these costs add up very quickly. Retired from the military, the Matthes’ are not wealthy. But what they lack in financial resources, they make up for in sheer commitment.

At one time or another, they have been plan B for almost every rescue group in Sarasota county.  SDA gets no government funding or support. It survives solely on grants, fundraising events and donations from the public. The SDA’s wish list this year includes both large and small items. SDA members volunteer to transport pets from Animal Services to PetSmart for the in-store adoption programs that have proven so successful. The used van they bought from the county about six years ago has been pressed into non-stop service ever since, and is on its last legs. If you want to help in smaller bites, they could use carrots for bunnies, apples for horses and canned pet food.

Wild for Wildlife

The Wildlife Center of Venice (WCV) is devoted to rehabilitating sick, orphaned, and injured wildlife without imprinting humans on them, so they can be returned to the wild and live a normal, wild life. Hidden away on Border Road in rural Venice, the Center’s five-acre parcel is marked only by a small sign on the double gates reminding everyone to lock the gates behind them. No wildlife is kept on the grounds once nurtured back to health. That can make it difficult for the Center to attract funding, though the most amazing things happen there.

The Center employs one full-time and two part-time rehabbers. While one might be doing physical therapy with an orphaned fawn, another might be helping volunteers put a healed owl back in its nest in the top of a pine tree. Other volunteers might be tending more than 150 rescued baby birds that need feeding every 15 minutes, or responding to a call about an opossum stuck in the plumbing under an elevated cottage.

WCV will respond to anyone needing help with native wildlife, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unlike “critter catchers,” who deal with urban wildlife for a living without guaranteeing a humane outcome, the Center doesn’t charge for its assistance. Its arrangement with the Emergency Veterinary Clinic allows Good Samaritans to bring in sick, injured, or orphaned wildlife---usually small birds, baby squirrels or opossums---at no charge. The Clinic cares for the creature until someone from the Center can pick it up. Some private veterinarians also accept and hold emergency cases for the Center on behalf of their clients.

It’s been a very tough year for everyone, and not great for the wildlife either. The pens, flight cages, and infirmary are filled with needy creatures requiring highly specialized diets, medicines and care.

Even if you already have a pet, think about the many animals who don’t have a friend like you.  Right here in Venice, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, who don’t have a good meal every day, a cozy place to sleep, or someone to protect them from injury and illness.  You may not be able to provide a forever home, but you can help make eyes brighten, ears perk up and tails wag.

Rush to the Rescue

Venice Cat Coalition: www.keywestcatsociety.com

St. Francis Animal Rescue: http://stfrancisarfl.org

Sarasota Defense of Animals: http://sdasarasota.com

Wildlife Center of Venice: www.wildlifecenterofvenice.org

Animal Rescue Coalition: www.animalrescuecoalition.org

Humane Society of Sarasota County: www.hssc.org

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