Updated: Jun 7
For over 5 years, Community Pet Project Inc. has been assisting the homeless and other at-risk families struggling to keep their pets fed and healthy in Tampa Bay.
Sometimes the best ideas come to use by accident. When the local Hillsborough & Tampa police departments started noticing a lot of families showing up to their quarterly outreaches for the homeless with pets, a new idea was born. A local dog trainer, dog rescue, and recent empty nester came together to form a solution, one they called Community Pet Project.
Community Pet Project was born in 2017, as an all-volunteer 501c3 charitable organization serving Hillsborough County, Florida. The needs of the community were so great, that after only one year, the Community Pet project had outgrown its home within the dog rescue where it started. Rhonda, who helped spearhead the group, recalls filling her Jeep easily on their first outreach mission, but by the third outreach mission, CPP needed an entire 9-foot cargo van, all within their first year! The best part about it was that all the supplies to fill those ever-expanding vehicles came directly from donations and contributions from the generous Hillsborough community members, businesses, and organizations who supported their mission.
After officially incorporating after their first year, Community Pet Project was able to expand its services to include financial and medical assistance to those in need. These additional services came at an opportune time, giving CPP a head start on a service that would be sharply increasing in demand once Covid hit in March 2020. Community Pet Project began to see and hear stories of many pets being surrendered to shelters, even being dropped off in parking lots, due to a loss of income. One thankful member of the community that received CPP’s help recalled how without this amazing resource, she would have had to surrender her dog in order to continue to afford to feed her family. But with this great challenge, the founders of CPP again saw another opportunity, this time to create their Pet Pantry.
During the height of Covid, the brave volunteers of the CPP Pet Pantry were delivering dog and cat food and supplies to families who were medically or financially affected by Covid on a weekly basis. As of November 8, 2020, they had helped 2,307 dogs and cats, and over 3 dozen small animals get the food that they needed. Once Covid had started to slow down after a year, CPP was able to move to a bi-weekly schedule, which they maintain to this day for anyone in the Hillsborough community who is a veteran, homeless, still affected by Covid, or low-income, and in need of support.
The CPP Pet Pantry is maintained by community members like you, who generously give to their cause, and local businesses Paw Print Hearts & Rescue Pets Support, which donate food and supplies regularly. But all these generous donations were starting to overtake Rhonda’s home. Just in the nick of time, two very generous sponsors, Dennis Realty and Professional Pets Dog Sitting, stepped up to sponsor a storage unit to hold most of the items. Even with this expansion, the Pet Pantry is still running out of Rhonda’s garage.
Q: Rhonda, how did you get started on this mission?
A: I started by volunteering with food bank nonprofits, and was involved with the rescue that helped start CPP by fostering for them, and even have 2 of their foster cats still today! I also helped with their adoption application process, which is how I found out about the rescue’s community outreaches.
Q: How did the name Community Pet Project come about?
A: The name came from Bill Gray, the rescue director at 2nd Chance Friends, who helped us come up with a few different names once we decided to start this adventure. Community Pet Project was the name that most of the people involved in the meeting kept coming back to, and since there was no way to tell exactly where this adventure would lead us, we decided that name would be the best fit. We didn’t know what we were getting into when it was created, and we needed something that was fluid, and be able to change with the environment we are in, and to meet the needs of the communities we are trying to reach.
Q: What type of people do you normally see at your outreach events?
A: We see people of all different backgrounds, including recovering addicts, people displaced by the pandemic, homeless veterans, and women fleeing abusive situations. I remember seeing a beautifully put-together woman at one of our past outreach events, hair and nails done, wearing a beautiful suit, with shiny accessories to match. She carried three puppies in her arms, but wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. I approached her and assured her we were not there to judge her, only to help, and what do you need? That’s when she opened up to me and told me that she had just fled an abusive relationship the night before, and all she was able to take from her house was her three dogs, what she was wearing and her car. Should we have taken her pets away from her because she was saving her own life? NO! How about the former drug addict who had been using for 20 years, burned all his bridges with family subsequently, and now has nowhere to turn while living his life clean and sober? His dog is all he has left, and his only companion that walks through life with him on a daily basis, without judgment. How could we take that beloved animal away from him? In our opinion, it’s much better to keep these pets and their humans, who are just trying to do the best they can, together.
Q: Do you feel that removing a pet from a homeless person is a good idea?
A: No, I do not think it’s a good idea to separate homeless people from their pets, and this is why we started CPP. Removing an animal from a homeless person is more likely to harm that person, more than help them. In most cases, those pets are all they have left in the world, and that pet is their only companion. Because of this, if a homeless shelter will not allow a pet to come in with its owner, the homeless person is far less likely to seek care from a shelter, at the risk of being separated from their animal companion. We have to remember not to judge those who are seeking help, as you never know why someone is in the situation they are in.
Q: During your outreach events that are put on by local police departments, are the situations you mentioned above pretty commonplace?
A: Yes, but sometimes we encounter people who think our mission is not important. I remember asking one woman at an event if she would like to donate to our cause. She listened to our mission statement and responded, “No thanks, that sounds ridiculous.” I was in a certain mood that day and told her the stories I recounted to you, and said, so what you’re telling me is that these people don’t deserve to live their life, with their pets by their side? The woman thought for a moment before responding with, “Oh.. I just didn’t know!” I was happy I took the time to educate her on our mission, and prove that you cannot judge a book by its cover!
Q: What would you say is your main focus at CPP?
A: Our mission is to assist the pets of homeless veterans and low-income families in Hillsborough County, by providing basic needs to them, such as food, treats, collars, leashes, grooming supplies, and any other items that have been supplied to us, back to the people who need them, free of charge. Our vision is to keep all pets happy, healthy and with their owners, and we hope to see that achieved someday. Unfortunately, until we start to see homeless shelters that will allow pets to come in with their owners, we will continue to see pets on the street with their owners.
Q: Besides the need for more support around the financial side of keeping a pet during Covid, did you see any other changes in your community?
A: Yes! It put a lot of strain on the veterinarians, who had to change their routine practice habits in order to protect their staff. While people were staying at home more, a lot of people decided to adopt and almost emptied the shelters! This is great, but it had added to the strain already on the vets, as people with little animal experience now had animals to care for. Now that most people have gone back to work, we’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of separation anxiety in pets, as they adjust to their owners' new schedules. This new behavior from separation anxiety caused a lot of the animals to be returned to the shelters and is the reason why some of our county shelters are almost at 300% capacity. Those that chose to keep their pets were now investing in training for their pets, which then left a strain on the training industry as well. I can recall it being difficult to find a trainer who didn’t have to schedule at least 6 months out with you during that time, which again led people to drop their dogs back at the shelters.
Q: What are some things that you wish you knew when you started?
A: I can say in all honesty, there’s nothing I know now that I wish I knew then. Community Pet Project may not have even been born, had we known what we would be looking at 5 years later. I’m glad things went the way they did! We’ve had Georgia and Texas Humane Societies contact us to learn more about how we run our project. It’s been a whirlwind, but I can tell you what we did start with. We started with community donations of basic supplies, added on fundraisers, and kept changing with the times. We’ve been able to provide food for over 4,000 pets, paid for emergency medical care for at least 50+, and provided financial support for peaceful euthanasia for end-of-life pets in need, all within one year.
Q: Do you feel that being in the Tampa area, which is known for being more dog friendly than some other metros, has helped you and CPP grow over the years?
A: I think being in the Tampa area has certainly helped, as we have so many dog-friendly bars, we have Hair of the Dog park, Pups Pub, and Two Shepherds Taproom, which we do a monthly drag queen bingo event with. I believe that this area has more millennials, who tend to go out to these higher-class establishments and want to bring their dog with them because their dogs are like their children! The hardest part for us, is we are the only group within a five-state radius that does what we do, so we’ve had to pioneer these ways to serve our community. The northern states don’t have the same issues we have here, so we’ve really had to get creative.
Q: How can people get involved, help with your mission and find you?
A: Because we are not an animal shelter, and instead are a community organization that helps people keep their pets, we aren't eligible for most grants or funding. We did receive a $10,000 grant from the Brawny Giants Initiative to help support our mission, along with a $5,000 grant from Pet Resource Center to help continue our mission in one year. It came at the right time, as that year alone we paid $40,000 in medical bills for pets in need. Currently, we’ve had to suspend our emergency medical assistance program due to a lack of funding. Due to the record heat this year, we were not able to host as many fundraising events, and therefore our donations have been low this year. But that doesn’t mean the need for this resource has stopped either. We still get emails and calls regularly for emergency medical fund assistance, and unfortunately, I’m the one who has to say no. It breaks my heart, but the fund simply does not exist currently for us to help. We hope that will change soon. We also need volunteers, board members that are willing to stay 2-3 years, volunteers to help run our monthly bingo, pictures with Santa at the dog park, and other events around the community.
Q: Can you tell us more about the events you typically run and offer?
A: Besides our fundraisers we also run events that help give back to the shelters, and need volunteers for these events as well. We are running a Pictures with Santa pet photo event with Tractor Supply that is free with the donation of any dog toy. At the end of the event, all dog toys collected will be donated to the county shelter to give all the shelter dogs new toys for Christmas. Another event we love to run and need volunteers for is a Grinch visit to your home, with Cindy Lou Who and Max the dog, available to anyone who gives the suggested donation amount. We’ve also partnered with the wonderful E-perry Photography who will be taking professional pet portraits at the Pet Supermarket in Tampa, and we love his superb work! This past October we held an event with Two Shepherds Taproom, where we were able to provide 10 filled raffle baskets, swag and dog toys, thanks to the generosity of a wine rep.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like the people of your community to know?
A: Yes, I would love to tell people about our dog house project! We’ve partnered with Friends of Hillsborough County Services aka Focus, Animal Lover’s Dream Rescue, Animal Control, Pet Resource Center, and Code Enforcement on our dog house project. July is National Dog House month, so we decided to help our low-income community members, who had been receiving citations from animal control for inadequate shelter with large fines, by not providing shade, food, and water for dogs that are kept outside. People that cannot pay the fines often have their dogs taken away. So we decided to create this dog house project, which originally had intentions of using palettes, but the materials proved too heavy to use. Luckily Code Enforcement donated 15 dog houses, which all needed to be assembled, to our cause, and volunteers from all the above partners came one hot Sunday afternoon to build these dogs' houses. Tractor Supply Co donated 5-gallon water buckets to help keep the pups hydrated and delivered them to low-income clients anywhere in Hillsborough County. The pet resource center has even supplied kennel runs to help get dogs off of tethers outside and into better situations! You have to start somewhere when trying to solve these problems, and since we can’t change the law, we decided to provide dog shelters and kennel runs instead.
Community Pet Project Inc. has made a significant impact in the Tampa Bay area over the past five years. What started as a solution born out of necessity has grown into a dedicated organization that assists the homeless and at-risk families in keeping their beloved pets fed and healthy. The Community Pet Project has evolved to provide not only basic supplies but also financial and medical assistance to those in need, especially during the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pet Pantry has been instrumental in delivering essential food and supplies to families affected by the pandemic on a regular basis, ensuring that pets stay with their owners and receive the care they need. The organization's success and growth have been made possible by the generous support of the Hillsborough community members, businesses, and organizations who have rallied behind their mission.
Rhonda, one of the founders of the Community Pet Project, has shown great dedication and passion for this cause. Her experience in volunteering with food bank nonprofits and fostering animals for a rescue organization inspired her to spearhead this venture. With the support of the community and the collaboration of various partners, the Community Pet Project has been able to provide assistance to thousands of pets, covering their basic needs, emergency medical care, and even end-of-life support. Their commitment to keeping pets and their owners together, even in challenging circumstances, reflects their understanding of the deep bond and companionship between humans and animals.
While facing some challenges, such as the lack of funding and the strain on veterinary services during the pandemic, Community Pet Project has remained resilient in its mission. They continue to rely on community donations, fundraisers, and the dedication of volunteers to support their initiatives. The organization's focus on outreach events, fundraisers, and partnerships with local businesses and shelters has not only helped raise awareness but also facilitated the growth and success of its programs.
Looking ahead, Community Pet Project aims to expand its reach and impact, while also advocating for homeless shelters to allow pets to stay with their owners. They recognize the importance of community involvement and encourage individuals to support their mission by donating, volunteering, and participating in their events. By working together, they strive to create a future where all pets can stay happy, healthy, and with their loving owners.
Community Pet Project's remarkable journey exemplifies the power of grassroots initiatives and the impact that a small group of dedicated individuals can make in their community. Their story serves as an inspiration to others, reminding us that even the most unexpected ideas and chance encounters can lead to meaningful and transformative endeavors.
Learn more and get involved: https://www.communitypetproject.org/