Second chances are the first priority for Alaqua Animal Refuge founder Laurie Hood. Offering shelter, safety and second chances to neglected, abandoned or abused animals is her passion.
Now in its 14th year, the operation also is starting a second chapter as Laurie positions Alaqua to offer more chances to more animals. In April, Alaqua will move to a 100-acre site with a new executive director and a broadened scope of services, expanding opportunities for engagement, training and support to people in need.
Laurie is taking on the move with the same drive that gave birth to this one-of-a-kind facility. When the Louisiana native found herself in rural northwest Florida, her passion for animals and search for new endeavors created what has become a model for animal rescue centers in the region.
“My husband and I moved here, I had just had two children and I was going stir crazy,” Laurie explains. “I found out our county had no animal shelter. None at all. They were taking them to a holding facility for seven counties. It was 100% euthanasia. I knew I had to do something. I wanted to give these animals a chance. Then I realized there were all these abused and neglected animals, and nothing was being done.”
That’s when Laurie began working with the Florida attorney general’s office and law enforcement agencies to build and implement a set of guidelines for dealing with and documenting animal abuse cases. She built relationships to ensure those in law enforcement are aware of humane options.
While working on laws, policies and guidelines at the county, state and federal levels, Laurie was also building the shelter, rehabilitation and adoption facility from the ground up on 10 acres of land in Freeport. An average of 150 animals in need are taken to Alaqua each month. About that same number are adopted out.
“We’ve taken as many as 300 animals at one time,” Laurie says, noting sometimes those are due to neglect and other times as a result of natural disasters.
After Hurricane Michael in 2018, an entire farm was flooded, and dozens of goats had to be evacuated.
“We do that free of charge, just so something is done about it,” Laurie says. “We’ve been able to position ourselves such that people will call us and we can help. We just try to be the voice for the animals.”
Each animal is named upon intake, and Laurie treats them all as family. As she wanders the grounds, she stops to pet Bear, an elderly dog whose elderly owners could no longer care for him. She visits with a goat named Stevie Wonder and a pig named Fern.
“What sets us apart is that most places are just for dogs and cats,” Laurie says.
Alaqua shelters plenty of dogs and cats. But the variety of animals speaks to Laurie’s commitment to offer second chances to all. Among nearly two dozen buildings on the property are an intake center, surgery rooms and “puppy condos,” where moms and their babies are housed together. There are also specially designed spaces for birds, pigs, goats and horses.
Laurie’s design of Alaqua’s $15 million 100-acre site extends the reach of its animal sanctuary, supports the efforts of other refuges and allows for new programs that focus on supporting humans.
The new operation—on land donated by conservationists and philanthropists M.C. and Stella Davis—implements Laurie’s vision of rescue, rehabilitation, adoption, education and training.
“Our goal is to be a model for animal sanctuaries around the world, and to be a destination for animal welfare advocates that will inspire, educate and empower others to make change,” Laurie says.
Her goal of inspiration has already been achieved as a legion of 400 volunteers work with Laurie and her paid staff of 28. Their duties range from daily dog walking to spending time with neglected animals and helping with programs that support the needs of special community groups—from young children with developmental delays and special needs to seniors who benefit from animal companionship.
Laurie says she was especially touched recently by an autistic boy who began therapeutic interactions through Alaqua’s newly established equine therapy program.
“He’d never spoken and he’d never even smiled,” she says. “By the end of his second session, he was smiling from ear to ear.”
Laurie says those programs—which she is most excited about expanding at the new, larger site—make Alaqua a healing place for people and animals.
She says finding more ways to bring people and animals together for their common good “is what we’re supposed to do.”
“Some of these animals come from the worst circumstances,” Laurie says. “Some of the people we see are just as broken. They see the animals begin to trust again, so maybe they can, too.”
Laurie plans interactions for the general public, too—“to just come and try to recharge your soul.”
Continuing the Mission to Rescue and Educate
As Alaqua transitions to its massive new home, the everyday duties will be led by new Executive Director Jeff Jacob.
Founder Laurie Hood will continue as president, setting and driving the refuge’s vision. Her husband, Taylor, is director of operations and has been on the board since the day he came home to find Laurie completing an application for the center’s nonprofit status. Sons, Crockett, 19, and Garner, 14, have been around the refuge their entire lives, helping out when they can.
“Alaqua is my heart and soul,” Laurie says. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll still be in the midst of things.”
Laurie aims to strengthen and expand national partnerships and leadership roles with organizations such as Animal Welfare Action, the Humane Society of the United States, Florida Wildlife Federation and the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center. She also will continue to lead Alaqua’s rescue operations, coordinating with governmental agencies to prosecute animal cruelty offenders.
While animal rescue and rehabilitation will always be central to Alaqua’s mission, Laurie plans to increase her involvement helping other refuges. She says that is how she can effect real, widespread change.
“My main focus is going to be helping other groups succeed,” she says, noting educational opportunities at the new facility will include training for leaders of other animal rescue organizations. “We’ll teach people how we did it, and they can decide what to take back to their area. It’s kind of just a Band-Aid if we just take, take, take.”
To cover its operational costs—which exceed $100,000 a month—the nonprofit depends solely on funds raised through donations and fundraising events.
A bigger facility with expanded services will require more financial support.
“We’ve built the property to be more self-sustaining,” Laurie says. “That was what I had in mind when I designed it.”
In addition to hosting on-site fundraising events, the property will include space for community events and be available for rental to other entities for special events. Inviting other groups onto the property is an opportunity to introduce people to Alaqua’s work.
Laurie says every abused, neglected and homeless animal deserves a second chance. She, a dedicated staff and committed volunteers have built Alaqua to be not only the premier no-kill refuge in the region, but a strong advocate for both animals and people in need of a voice and a second chance.
“Alaqua’s new home will redefine sanctuary for animals and people alike and will represent a renewal of life, a restored hope and a second chance for all,” Laurie says.
Alaqua’s New Home
With room for expansion and innovative program development opportunities, Alaqua’s new 100-acre facility will include:
- A welcome center with a French Quarter-inspired courtyard.
- An adoption center and gift shop.
- Dog suites with home-like environments and outdoor runs.
- Cat adoption cabins and interaction areas.
- An advanced medical quarantine area and rehabilitation space.
- A veterinary clinic with infirmary rooms, a forensic lab and five surgical bays.
- A wildlife sanctuary.
- A classroom and pavilion for special events, educational seminars and animal training.
- Exotic bird aviaries.
- Interactive animal exhibits and natural wildlife enclosures.
- Animal therapy opportunities.
- Walking paths and nature trails.
- Chapel and meditation areas.
- Bridge of Hope National Memorial dedicated to the millions of shelter animals that die each year.
- Housing for interns.
In its mission as both an animal shelter and sanctuary, the private, nonprofit organization will continue to expand its efforts in rescue, rehabilitation, adoption, education and training. To learn more about the operation, foster or adopt animals, or to donate to Alaqua’s efforts, visit www.alaqua.org.