VIDEO: Naples offers hope for LaBelle's death row pets

Dogs kenneled at Caloosa Humane Society almost seem to plead to be taken back to Naples.

Dogs kenneled at Caloosa Humane Society almost seem to plead to be taken back to Naples.

Shelter rescues dog in wheelchair

Dachshund has met lots of love

For information on the animals available at Humane Society Naples or their upcoming events go to www.HSNaples.org or call 643-1555

Talk about a kit and kaboodle -- HSN officials pack their van with cats and dogs

Talk about a kit and kaboodle -- HSN officials pack their van with cats and dogs

Caloosa Humane Society Director Suzanne Bonnell, HSN Executive Director Michael Simonik and HSN Vet Technician Alex DeStefano contemplate which animals will be transferred to Naples as two hopefuls look on.

Caloosa Humane Society Director Suzanne Bonnell, HSN Executive Director Michael Simonik and HSN Vet Technician Alex DeStefano contemplate which animals will be transferred to Naples as two hopefuls look on.

Suzzane Bonnell shows HSN vet tech Alex DeStefano how to manage Roo Roo's wheelchair.

Suzzane Bonnell shows HSN vet tech Alex DeStefano how to manage Roo Roo's wheelchair.

Caloosa Humane Society Director Suzanne Bonnell bids a tearful farewell to Roo Roo.

Caloosa Humane Society Director Suzanne Bonnell bids a tearful farewell to Roo Roo.

HSN Executive Director Michael Simonik and Shelter Manager Karen Sesso carry new residents into the facility.

HSN Executive Director Michael Simonik and Shelter Manager Karen Sesso carry new residents into the facility.

LaBelle is not that far from Naples, but in the lives of hundreds of pets the two places are a world apart. Several times a month the Humane Society Naples sends a team to visit the Caloosa Humane Society, where they pick up pets that are literally on death row in an institution that can’t afford to care for them.

HSN is fortunate to have a large board of directors, enough staff and donations to be a no-kill shelter. Six years ago HSN Executive Director Michael Simonik spearheaded a program of rescuing animals from shelters in places like LaBelle.

“As a no-kill shelter we spend a lot of time and money to try and fill the needs of people who want a companion animal,” said HSN Executive Director Michael Simonik. “Every day they walk in just wanting to love a dog or cat, and that’s how we can acquire so many adoptable pets — from shelters which otherwise have to euthanize them.”

The Humane Society Naples makes two to three trips a month to LaBelle’s Caloosa Humane Society, which serves both Glades and Henry counties, two of Florida’s lowest-income counties. There, a team of people that includes Simonik, HSN vet tech Alex DeStefano and sometimes another member of the HSN staff have a challenging job: deciding which animals to rescue and which ones to leave behind.

It’s a heartbreaking day of tough choices.

The final huddle

The HSN team works closely with Caloosa Humane Society Director Suzanne Bonnell. They and Bonnell walk through the shelter and eventually huddle to decide the fate of which animals will be transferred to Naples and which ones will stay on in LaBelle. Bonnell makes every effort to adopt out all the animals left behind and cares for them until they find forever homes or have to be euthanized.

“This time six years ago we would be euthanizing 75 percent more animals than we do now,” said Bonnell. “With Michael Simonik’s help HSN has lowered our euthanasia rate for these animals to the point that now we’re only euthanizing for health and behavioral issues.”

DeStefano uses his expertise in veterinary health care to look for health issues that could prevent a dog or cat from being adopted. Simonik is looking for animals that represent what the Naples market wants as companion pets.

“Really we’re looking for a highly adoptable mix of dogs and cats, even though we know we have a huge expense here because we’re treating things like heartworm, which is very expensive,” said Simonik. “We’re after market share — after all these years we know what people want to adopt and we try to bring that desirable supply to our market.”

Most of the potential adopters who come to Humane Society Naples are looking for smaller dogs because so many residents live in condos. This makes smaller dogs from LaBelle more desirable candidates to make the trek back to Naples. And of course, Simonik, says, everyone loves a puppy.

But on their most recent trip to LaBelle, when Simonik, DeStefano and HSN Public Relations Director Stephen Wright traveled to LaBelle, a very special guest was waiting: a dachsund named Ru Ru.

Wheelchair car washes

Ru Ru is just like any other daschund — spirited, kind, and addicted to affection. At Caloosa Humane Society he follows Bonnell from room to room, spending hours each day checking on all his friends in their cages throughout the shelter. Once in a while, he expects Bonnell to pick him up so he can deliver his daily onslaught of kisses.

Ru Ru enjoys his treats just as much as the next dog. He seems to care for his collared comrades. His caregivers at Caloosa claim he can develop a genuine worried look on his face when something is amiss. He smiles as only a dog can and has never met a stranger. Ru Ru is energetic — he loves nothing more than to scurry about, making sure everything is as it should be.

But one thing separates Ru Ru from other dogs at the shelter. He lives his life in the confines of a wheelchair, but it’s as if no one ever told him that.

Injured accidentally during play with a companion dog in his previous owner’s home, Ru Ru’s debilitating back injury never healed properly. Ru Ru’s injuries required additional time and effort to maintain his care. Subsequently, his owners chose not to keep him. They surrendered Ru Ru to the Caloosa Humane Society where Bonnell began the long process of healing the little dog.

“Dogs like Ru Ru come to us and with HSN’s help — and they’ve helped us before with these cases — we can begin the arduous task of trying to rehabilitate these animals with special needs,” said Bonnell. “It’s another way the partnership works to help these animals.”

The LaBelle community is not a wealthy community. Caloosa Humane Society is not overrun with donations. But what each lack in funding, they make up in love.

“Ru Ru’s previous wheelchair was made of pipe and it prevented him from being mobile on various surfaces and didn’t properly support his back,” said DeStefano. “He needed a new wheelchair.”

But a new wheelchair for Ru Ru was hundreds of dollars, impossible for Caloosa Humane Society’s tight budget. A local animal lover named Kelly Boone and her family heard about Ru Ru’s plight. She and others in the LaBelle community organized a car wash to raise money to buy Ru Ru a new wheelchair.

Ru Ru even attended the event in his honor and charmed the crowd. Dozens of car washes and hundreds of dollars later, Ru Ru’s new wheelchair enabled a level of mobility that matched the dog’s jovial spirit.

“There are animals who may appear less adoptable, but they break our hearts and we have to take them because we just can’t leave them,” Simonik said of Ru Ru.

So the HSN team brought Ru Ru back to Naples last weekend. But before they did, Boone and her two daughters swooped into Caloosa Humane Society to bid farewell to the little dog who has stolen the hearts of the LaBelle community. Tears streamed down Boone and her daughters’ faces as they said goodbye to Ru Ru, the dog they helped save.

“I was crying happy tears because I know Ru Ru is going to find his forever home in Naples, and although it was heart-wrenching to know I couldn’t help him get better, it was an amazing experience to watch him go to Naples for the care he needs,” said Boone. “It’s also amazing that HSN comes here to help us the way they do.”

Wheels to Naples

Ru Ru still has a long way to go, but thanks to Bonnell’s early work and new treatments he’ll get through Humane Society Naples, Ru Ru has a chance to heal and possibly regain the use of his hind legs. He recently traveled with HSN officials to the east coast of Florida to have a neurological consultation that will hopefully result in a treatment plan.

“All dogs are worth saving, but Ru Ru is a very special dog who will be perfect for someone to love,” said Simonik. “There are just some people who come in and we just know they are perfect for caring for a special needs animal and because we live in such a generous community like Naples we know that someone will love them.”

In LaBelle, Caloosa Humane Society officials don’t have the donations to keep all of the homeless animals that come into their care.

“By comparison, we have only four paid employees at Caloosa, three of which are just part-time versus 25 paid employees in Naples,” said Bonnell. “So we’re extremely grateful for the work they do for us which makes our job much easier with the budgetary constraints we have.”

The Humane Society Naples steps in and takes as many animals as they can accommodate at their shelter, a point Stephen Wright tries to make in communicating with the community.

“Because we are a no-kill shelter, when people come in and adopt a rescued pet from us at Humane Society Naples it really allows us to fill that van up again. So you’re really saving two lives,” Wright said.

As Ru Ru raced around his new friends in Naples, stopping only to kiss their ankles and receive a few pats on the back, the team smiled. For them it might have been just another day at the office, but, oh, what a day it was.

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