The annual migration of snowbirds to their cooler "nests" has begun. Nowhere in the county will they be more sorely missed than at the two animal shelters, where an average of 90 dogs rely on these dedicated volunteers for their daily exercise.
Dogs like Alan, Bebe, Dennis and Mason, who have been in kennels since December, relish their routine with the volunteer walkers.
The Palmetto Shelter is closed on Sundays and the dogs eagerly await Monday morning. The Downtown Bradenton Shelter is closed on Mondays, and their residents are enthused when their Tuesday walkers parade them around downtown.
The dogs sport "adopt me" vests and sometimes meet their future families on these walks.
It is a symbiotic relationship. The dogs get exercise and socialization while the walkers get exercise and love.
Dog walkers contribute to a dog's chance of getting adopted. It can be as simple as writing notes on dogs' cage cards or as profound as teaching a dog to trust humans.
For example, the shelter is currently housing several Napier rescue dogs and cruelty confiscated dogs who are psychologically damaged.
One particularly sad boy, Hansel, had his teeth completely filed down, indicating he was used as a "bait" dog. Hansel is not aggressive, but he is timid and scared and will clearly need a special rescue or home to help him heal.
In the meantime, volunteer dog walkers are teaching him about trust and love.
MCAS has cherished the Snowbird Dog Walkers and wish them well. Now, they need year-round residents to fill the void.
Go to www.mymanatee.org/pets to submit an application and sign up for orientation. Families and teens needing volunteer credits are welcome.
Debra Starr, Animal Network