Pets are more than just animals; they are family members for many people. But what happens to them when the family breaks up? When there is divorce or sickness? A financial setback, job loss or relocation? Many of them end up at the Gulf Coast Humane Society (GCHS,) a not-for-profit, no-kill shelter.
In 2019, the shelter rescued a whopping 2532 animals and adopted 2309 of them.
“Many people are surprised to know we’ve been around since 1947 and at our current location off of MLK in Fort Myers since the early ’70s,” says Executive Director, Jennifer Galloway.
Formerly known as Lee County Humane Society, the name was changed in the late ’90s; people often confused the shelter with the county’s animal services department. In addition, the organization’s reach goes far beyond Lee County.
The shelter partners with smaller towns all over Southwest Florida that have limited resources. Animals are often euthanized in smaller communities because there is no medical care or even worse, no space for them.
Galloway says, “Florida is one of the top states that still euthanizes animals. By helping rural communities we help reduce those numbers.”
When it comes to adoptions, “One of the biggest myths is that because an animal is in a shelter, they must have done something bad when that is just not the case.” Galloway says most animals end up there because owners can no longer take care of them.
Once in the shelter, it is her mission to ease the fears of the animals, make sure they feel loved and leave with new skills. She likens a shelter stay to summer camp saying, “We do enrichment. We have certified trainers. We have playdates so they can go in the yard with other dogs. We want them to keep their social skills.”
The same holds true for cats. GCHS has a free-roaming cat room complete with a lanai for felines to lounge in the sun. Galloway explains, “It makes an easier transition into a home if the cats aren’t stuck in cages while they are here.”
Not all cats are adoptable; there is a large feral (free-roaming cats) population in Southwest Florida. GCHS partners with Fortunate Ferals, another local non-profit organization that teaches people how to colonize feral cats with an emphasis on spaying and neutering. “It’s our goal to reduce the cat population problem in the state,” says Galloway.
The influence of GCHS is indeed much greater than the walls of the shelter.
“We go into the community with animals to ease tensions and stress,” says Galloway, adding, “Even 911 call centers because it’s such a stressful job. The animals bring smiles to their faces.”
The same holds true for children who are experiencing trauma. Shelter dogs make regular cameos at places such as the Children’s Advocacy Center of Southwest Florida and Valerie’s House. Animals are used for humane education programs in local schools and at summer camps, and volunteers take them to nursing homes and adult day care programs throughout Southwest Florida.
GCHS was founded before the National Humane Society, and while a member of that organization, receives no funding from it.
GCHS is privately funded, relying on donations and volunteers.
Volunteers walk dogs, take them on car rides and even home for observation. If any behavior issues are noticed, trainers will work with the animals. Dog-training classes are offered to the public as well.
“The goal is to get them in a home and keep them in a home,” says Galloway, “We do all we can to give our animals good skills.”
Perhaps one of the biggest needs, besides funding, is that for foster parents. This is especially true during kitten season when babies whose eyes aren’t even open, are abandoned and have to be bottled fed. Ditto for puppies and injured animals.
“There is only so much we can do in the rehabilitation center,” says Galloway. “It’s just like with people. We get better faster in a home, with fresh air, love, and sunlight. I’m a true believer that heals us all.”