Suncoast Animal League raises money for a good cause

It seems every week, there is a charitable fitness event; a Walk for This, a March for That or a Skip-to-my-Lou for Them Too. So how do you choose which organization and event to support?

A better question: How often do you come across an event that allows you to cycle for a worthy cause and then grub out, grab a beer and kick back to watch a canine crooning contest called "Fido Idol" and a doggie version of Project Runway? You'll find all this and more at Ride 4 the Animals Feb. 19, and you'll be helping a very worthy cause: The Suncoast Animal League needs your help.

Founded in 2006 by executive director Rick Chaboudy and Annette Dettloff, Suncoast Animal League is an 1,800-square-foot facility in Palm Harbor that currently houses 50 or so animals on site, with more than 60 others in various foster homes.

SAL is an independent, no-kill animal shelter, although Chaboudy is not a fan of the "no-kill" label, calling it a term that is "widely used and misused and misunderstood." His practical definition is that no adoptable animal is euthanized. Animals can be put down, even at alleged no-kill facilities, for social or medical reasons.

"A lot of times, there are very few things medically that keep them from being adopted," he explains. "One of the biggest problems we have with cats is a cold... Some shelters will look at that as they're not adoptable. Well, you know, they're not adoptable at that point in time. It's a nuisance treatment... certainly putting a pill or any kind of medicine down a cat is a pain. So it's a big nuisance and a lot of time and effort for a shelter, but it's certainly not life-threatening for the cats. There are shelters that will look at that and say, 'Well, they're sick. Euthanize them,' and in the back of their minds, they can get away with saying they're not adoptable."

Chaboudy's shelter serves northern Pinellas County, but its purview extends beyond the state in special circumstances. Recently, it helped out Angel Dog Rescue in Georgetown, Ga., taking 40 dogs over the course of a month to protect the animals from freezing conditions in outdoor kennels.

"Almost any dog that comes in here is almost immediately placed into a foster home," Chaboudy explains. "We can help other shelters by taking in large numbers because of those foster homes."

Space is at a premium in this independent shelter, so Chaboudy's office does double duty as a feline residence, with many of the cats housed in cages near his desk. Visitors are greeted by dozens of curious yellow eyes and a scattered chorus of fragile meows — plus the unmistakable olfactory evidence that yes, there's a lot of cats in here.

"It's not easy being small," Chaboudy remarks.

Being the little guy isn't all bad, though. Given his choice of SAL or working at one of the national animal welfare organizations, he makes it clear he's happy where he is. Being independent allows him to do things his way and express his personality in the way he runs things.

Still, that freedom comes with a price: scarcity of funds and resources. While SAL has a great support network that Chaboudy appreciates tremendously, his organization is obviously the little dog in the fight to secure donations. SAL opened with an annual operating budget of $150,000, which has nearly doubled in its four years of existence to $275,000.

"It's been a steady growth since then," Chaboudy says. "Growth in animal shelters sometimes is good and sometimes is bad because it means a lot more animals are being turned in. But that's part of our world, and you just sort of deal with those things and make the best of things.

"As bad as the economy is, we've been growing with it. People still donate during the bad times, but instead of the $100 donations, we're receiving $15 donations now."

According to Chaboudy, individual donors make up SAL's primary source of funding. The organization also hosts numerous fundraising events each year; 2010 saw the shelter's first cycling event, Cycle 4 Strays, organized by Laura Hoffman in March of that year. Hoffman, a longtime animal lover and friend of Chaboudy, pulled the event together as a local kickoff for the Cycle 4 Strays event in Arizona, a ride to promote spay-and-neutering in Central American developing nations.

"The person who developed Cycle 4 Strays created a route from Best Friends Sanctuary — a huge animal shelter out in Utah — down to Costa Rica," Hoffman says.

"We put it on last year thinking just to break even; as long as we don't lose any money on it and it's just something you grow with," Chaboudy adds. "Well, we were surprised; we did pretty well."

Feb. 19 will bring the fifth annual Mutt March to Highlander Park in Dunedin and, in conjunction, the Ride 4 the Animals cycling event. Chaboudy describes the Mutt March as a pledge walk, wherein participants raise money to donate to the shelter. The planned events include the aforementioned "Fido Idol" and "Doggie Project Runway," plus a Mardi Gras pet parade and other activities for animal lovers and their four-legged friends. Chaboudy decided to combine the cycling event with the Mutt March in order to offer more to participants when they're finished riding.

"We wanted them to have something to do," he says. "When they get back, they've got an entire Highlander Park-filled event to just hang around, do what they want to do, grab some food, grab a couple of beers, be a part of whatever we're doing and make a day out of it instead of a few hours."

Chaboudy hopes to take in more than $30,000 at the upcoming event. While it sounds like a lot, he explains the necessity of socking it away for the upcoming summer donation dry period. SAL is unable to take the animals out in the heat for outdoor fundraising activities. Additionally, charitable giving tends to fluctuate with the given season. Generosity is high toward the holidays — in addition to those people who are looking for tax write-offs before the end of the fiscal year.

I've ridden in my fair share of cycling events — including SAL's Cycle 4 Strays last year. I got my family involved after hearing about it at the American Diabetes Association's Tour De Cure in Feb. 2010. The two events couldn't be more different. After Tour de Cure, I wolfed down gourmet wraps and other food provided by sponsors. A month later, after Cycle 4 Strays, I noshed on burgers and hotdogs grilled by Chaboudy himself while petting cats inside what I now know to be his office. It was obviously SAL's first time hosting a ride, but the spirit behind the fledgling event stuck with me so much that I didn't hesitate to sign up when I got an e-mail about the event a few weeks ago.

"Ever since I can remember, animals were my thing," Chaboudy says. "My grandmother had this magic touch with animals and I think somewhere I got that from her... It's always a challenge; it's emotional, you certainly have a lot of highs and lows. You see a lot of good and you see a lot of bad. I think the thing that impresses me the most — especially in the Tampa Bay area — is when you have those very few, very bad people, the tremendous amount of good people that are out there just rise above."

Anyone interested in participating can find more information at ride4theanimals.com or by calling Suncoast Animal League at 727-786-1330.

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