ST. PETERSBURG — When it came time for 5-year-old Riley to crawl into Jennifer Simon's convertible for a Sunday morning drive to the park at Clearwater's Long Center, he stood paralyzed, not knowing what to do.
His family rarely took him for rides in the car, and when a muscle-atrophying disorder began to cause the muscles in his face to sink in, they dropped him off at a shelter, where he's waited months for a new family to take him home.
He's not used to being the center of attention. He's seen many potential parents walk away after they learned that in a few years, as his auto-immune Masticatory Muscle Myositis worsens, he may have trouble chewing and have to be fed through a feeding tube. But once he arrived at the Humane Society of Pinellas' Adopt-A-Palooza, his face lit up and the hound-mix started waving his nubby tail.
Riley was just one of 124 dogs, cats, reptiles, birds and pocket-sized furry creatures hoping to find a home at the largest pet adoption of its kind in Pinellas County, said Twila Cole, director of development for the Humane Society of Pinellas. They weren't disappointed. Just minutes after the event began at 8 a.m., lines formed at booths for 13 area rescue organizations
About 60 animals found homes at the event, the first of its kind to offer a free venue for 13 local rescue organizations and about 30 other vendors. The Humane Society, which brought about 50 animals to be adopted, only had three to take back to the shelter when the event ended at 1 p.m.
“I couldn't tell who was in line to pet animals and who was in line to adopt,” Cole said. “There is still a huge need for adoption in Tampa Bay. It's such a concentrated area and with the weather, animals can survive as strays longer. Today has been awesome but this just puts a dent in the need.”
Animal adoptions have picked up over the past few years, but Pinellas County is still home to an estimated 30,000 homeless pets and strays, Cole said. The average length of stay for an animal at the humane society is down to 15.5 days, including days spent in the medical facility, behavior training, adoption assessments and a few days for the animal to settle down and adjust to moving from a home to a shelter. On any given day, the Humane Society has 300 animals under its care and oversees more than 100 foster homes for animals that aren't old enough or prepared to be adopted. The organization, the largest no-kill shelter in Pinellas County, has a $1.5 million budget each year and operates mainly with donations — everything from time to pet beds, food and cleaning supplies.
The organization does 225 loads of laundry in a week — the average household's laundry loads for a year — and washers and driers usually survive about three months, Cole said.
Dogs and cats are the most popular, but the Humane Society and many other adoption agencies also take in small pets like snakes, hamsters, gerbils and birds. Older pets, pit bulls that often are prohibited from Pinellas' numerous apartments and condos, and black or dark-haired animals that have ties to superstitions and generally are more difficult to photograph or see facial expressions, are always the toughest to adopt out, said SPCA adoption counselor Jessica Moreira.
“I have noticed more people coming to rescue pets instead of going to a breeder, and sometimes you'll get people looking for that awkward older dog that's not quite as adoptable,” Moreira said. “If people keep buying pets from stores the problem isn't being solved, it's being propagated, and its become a pretty big problem in this area, especially stray cats. ”
The event drew hundreds that were simply interested in viewing the 30 vendor booths that offered everything from pet massage demonstrations and “ask-a-trainer” sessions to affordable micro-chipping. Many just came to help socialize their dogs.
Wyatt Schirm and his sister Erica brought her white fluffy Bichon-mini Australian Shepherd mix Tater-Tot. Tater-Tot needs a friend, and so does Schirm, he said. His dog should be calm, sweet, friendly, smart and in need of a loving family. A dog that loves the water would be a plus, the St. Pete resident said.
Perhaps a dog like Riley.
As soon as Riley spotted Schirm on his walk around the park, he ran towards him and began to lean on his leg. His casual lean soon turned into a belly-rub session that lasted for much of the afternoon. Even a cautious Tater-Tot seemed to approve.
“I've always had dogs growing up and I've been looking for a dog of my own for a while,” Schirm said. “Now I have to take him.”