Marti Ryan, who handles community and media relations for Hillsborough County Animal Services, listened to teacher Erin Anderson from St. Stephen’s Catholic School on the other end of the line. The students wanted to do a service project that would help out animals. Did Ryan have any suggestions?
You bet she did. Ryan is bursting with creative ways to make this world a better place for our four-footed friends. Yes, it’s her job, but long before she got paid for it, she did it as a volunteer.
“Why not a Coin Crusade from the Heart?” Ryan suggested, coming up with the name on the fly. The kids could gather up small change to raise money sorely needed to treat shelter animals that test heartworm positive. Anderson loved the idea and said she hoped to raise about $100.
To call the fundraiser a success is an understatement. In just a few weeks, the kids from St. Stephen’s raised $1,200. Second-graders brought in the most change, earning them an ice cream party.
Another mission accomplished.
That’s how life is for Ryan. Every penny helps in an ongoing effort that can seem overwhelming at times. She wants the community to know that the county shelter isn’t just a place where animals go to die. Yes, euthanasia is a sad reality there, but it is also a vital organization staffed by caring individuals who are saving lives through adoptions, medical treatment and rescue operations from abuse situations.
To me, Ryan will always be “Party Marty.” And that’s how many of you may remember her, when she rocked Tampa Bay-area airwaves as an on-air personality for several local radio stations.
But in 2005, Ryan made what appeared to be an abrupt career change. She left the entertainment world after 25 years to champion neglected, abandoned and abused animals.
She says it wasn’t as much of a stretch as it might appear.
“I took a battery of tests that tell you what you’re best suited for, and it came back that I should either be a broadcast personality or a veterinarian,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe I’ve always followed my heart. I did one thing I loved for 25 years, now it was time to do another.”
She refers to her fellow workers as heroes. She got to know them when she volunteered as a dog washer and assisted on rescue transfer missions. Their dedication inspired her to take the job when it opened up.
“Once you know what goes on here, you can’t turn away,” she says. “Because it’s not just about animals. It’s about the challenging situations humans get into, resulting in them giving up their pets. Or, in the worst cases, the seamy side connected to those who exploit them,” she says. “You can go home completely defeated or overwhelmed with joy. But you always feel you are making a difference.”
I’ve always marveled at the brave souls who work at county shelters. How do they do it? My animal family includes one rescue dog, two geriatric cats and two horses. It would be impossible for me to walk into a shelter and look into the eyes of dogs and cats whose days are numbered and not walk out with at least one. Impossible!
Ryan understands. That’s how Sergeant Shorty, a beagle-dachshund mix, and Azula, a Jack Russell-Italian greyhound, came into her home. Both required extensive and expensive heartworm treatment. Now they’re healthy, permanent residents of her family, which includes her teenage son and husband.
And like a lot of shelter workers, Ryan is an ongoing foster parent, taking home a puppy or dog who needs a little extra attention and care prior to being put up for adoption.
Ultimately, the dream is that Animal Services won’t be so crowded and so needed. Things are already improving. When Ryan arrived eight years ago, some 36,000 animals went through the shelter in a year; now it’s about 21,000. Hours have been expanded to seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., making visitation and adoptions easier for working people.
Even more encouraging: a new nonprofit is now in operation to raise funds that pay for all the medical and auxiliary expenses not covered by the county budget, reduce euthanasia by promoting shelter adoptions, assist in reuniting lost pets with their owners and educate the public about responsible pet ownership. To learn more about Friends of Hillsborough County Animal Services, visit www.friendsofhcas.org
Ryan has been able to put her high-energy innovative skills into action with special events with catchy names to improve the shelter’s image, raise funds and boost adoptions. This month it’s “St. Pat’s Cats.” It costs just $20 to adopt a spayed or neutered cat that is 1 year old or older, and that comes with all the vaccinations and a microchip. If you’re 62 or older and in need of a feline companion, it’s just $5.
“Kittens fly out the door like they have wings,” Ryan says. “Not so with adult cats. We need to change that. So you come up with special incentives and you hope to make a connection.”
There’s so much to do. But on the days when it just seems to be too much, Ryan focuses on all the good: the volunteers, the rescue organizations, pet foster parents, her fellow team members at Animal Services, the students at St. Stephens. And that makes her job so worthwhile.
“I followed my heart,” she says, “and here’s where I landed. It’s emotional, it’s spiritual, and it’s where I’m supposed to be.”