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A Good Shepherd

Helping the Voiceless

By Felicia Ferguson | Photography courtesy of Alaqua Animal Refuge

Laurie Hood, the founder of Alaqua Animal Refuge, hears the cries of the winged and four-footed and has spoken on their behalf for twelve years. As of May 2019, she and a platoon of volunteers have partnered with local sheriffs’ departments and rescued more than four thousand dogs from hoarders, puppy mills, abusive situations, and natural disasters. They have also taken in over twenty thousand animals from across the Florida Panhandle. But recently, new opportunities to expand her scope and reach have developed, offering her the ability to impact the lives of both animals and humans.

A recipient of multiple honors and awards for her work in animal rescue, Hood added Florida state director for Animal Wellness Action to her many roles. The national nonprofit organization supports and partners with political leaders who are dedicated to animal rights at the state and federal levels. “I met the founder, Wayne Pacelle, years ago at a convention in D.C.,” Hood says. “I had always admired and followed the vast scale of his animal protection work and all he was able to accomplish. When he asked me to be the state director, I knew it was an incredible opportunity to expand my realm of work. But it was a little daunting as well because politics is a whole different world.”

But Hood brings her own success in crafting and passing animal rights legislation to the position. In 2018, she lobbied for Florida’s Amendment 13, the ban on wagering on dog races, which passed during a general election vote with a 69 percent voter approval. The two-year phase-out period is currently under way, with the last racing days occurring at tracks across the state. Most dog-racing venues will be closed well before the deadline due to a lack of public support for the sport. With Hood’s backing, the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, part of the Horse Protection Act, passed the U.S. House of Representatives in one of the most significant landslide votes in history. The bill is now making its way through the Senate.

While Hood answered the call and continues to lobby at the state and national levels, her first love will always be Alaqua Animal Refuge. Her ongoing work to protect animals and provide them a second chance is expanding after a donation of one hundred acres; a $15 million capital campaign is under way. Designed with an eye toward impacting future generations of leaders, veterinarians, and rescuers, the new animal welfare park and education center will operate more like a small town than a traditional refuge. Architectural designs are in place for a veterinary teaching clinic, including on-site cabins where interns can live while training. Those amenities will be open to other animal refuge coordinators who wish to learn about and experience Alaqua’s innovative practices firsthand.

Designed with an eye toward impacting future generations of leaders, veterinarians, and rescuers, the new animal welfare park and education center will operate more like a small town than a traditional refuge.

Hood also plans to create a learning experience for children. “When I was a kid, if you loved animals, you were supposed to become a vet. Well, that’s not for everybody. Many young children love animals, but they don’t realize that they can love animals, do what they’re passionate about, and have a career at the same time.” Encouraging and inspiring the next generation of lobbyists, zoologists, animal rights attorneys, and refuge founders is a dream she sees becoming a reality with this expansion.

However, the penultimate achievement is something that has never been created before: an innovative healing center for both humans and animals. “When we were first granted the land, we were initially just going to have a larger version with expanded programs from what we have now.” But those plans morphed into something much bigger.

“I’ve always talked to the volunteers and asked them why they came, and, of course, it’s because they love animals.” But, over her years of interacting with volunteers and hearing their stories, Hood discovered many were just as wounded as the animals they tended. Amid their traumas and health or personal issues, these people came to Alaqua to give back and instead found peace. “It’s an amazing thing to offer people of all ages. So, we decided to move toward creating a place on this new property that’s a healing place for people and animals.” There will be a chapel on the grounds as well as meditation classes. But the foundation will be what has always worked in the past—the opportunity to experience the animals’ unique gift of recharging the soul through unconditional love without judgment.

To accomplish these goals, the new facility must be self-sustaining. “I hear over and over people saying, ‘I can’t go to an animal shelter. It’s just too sad.’ So, from the very beginning, we wanted to create something that was the total opposite of that.” And she longs to change the image of shelters as cells of concrete and chain link to fields and sunlit runs where animals live in a native space and families come to visit for an outing. To that end, areas are being designed to host events like farmers’ markets, children’s parties, and weekend music festivals.

But through her dedication, she is evolving into something more: a good shepherd who tends to the hearts and minds of animals and humans. While there is still much more to be done, she is up to the challenge.

In October, she and Alaqua dove headfirst into the music festival waters with the Inaugural Barn Jam. Four Nashville singers and songwriters and two local artists performed live at the first public opening of the new property. The Barn Jam rounded out Alaqua’s Animoré, a festival fund-raiser weekend. The first night hosted the 100-Point and Cult Wine Dinner. The annual dinner, now in its sixth year, is an exclusive evening featuring a unique experience for Alaqua patrons.

In past years, the dinner was held in Hood’s home, with sixty guests savoring culinary delights and incredible wine pairings. The evening juxtaposed “the luxury of all these wines with the casual aspect of being able to come in boots and jeans.” This year attendance doubled, and the event moved to the new grounds. Huge tepee buildings complete with wooden floors and chandeliers were installed on the property for the event. However, unlike many parties where the venue disappears at the event’s end, the tepees are now permanent structures on the property and are offered for use to the community.

Laurie Hood’s voice and those of the animals she loves and fights to protect are being heard. But through her dedication, she is evolving into something more: a good shepherd who tends to the hearts and minds of animals and humans. While there is still much more to be done, she is up to the challenge. “I would love to see the new facility open. I can already see everything happening the way I want it to. I can’t wait until it’s finally a reality, when people are coming here to learn about us and we are inspiring children.”

— V —

Visit Alaqua.org to learn more or support Alaqua Animal Refuge today.

Felicia Ferguson holds master’s degrees in healthcare administration and speech-language pathology but is currently a freelance writer and author. She finds inspiration in lakes and gardens and is blessed to have both at her home in Destin, Florida. More details can be found at FeliciaFergusonAuthor.com.

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