Interviewed by Charles Morgan III
Alaqua Animal Refuge is preparing to relocate to a 100-acre property east of Freeport. The new facility will have an environment reminiscent of a small town. There will be an expanded adoption center, new animal and educational exhibits, an enhanced medical facility, and multiple pastures for horses and other animals with walking paths and trails.
There will also be a state-of-the-art arena to host equestrian events, an onsite restaurant and community garden, and a chapel-in-the-woods for grieving families to hold services for their pets.
“From the very beginning, I wanted a place that would be different than traditional animal shelters,” says Laurie Hood, Alaqua’s founder. “I wanted a place where happy animals would be surrounded by a pristine environment, making it peaceful to adopt and volunteer. I wanted a place where animals of all sizes, shapes and kinds could heal and be provided shelter, safety and a second chance of life.”
Ten years ago, you started Alaqua. How did that happen?
We started Alaqua to address a major need in our area. Alaqua was the first no-kill animal shelter in northwest Florida. We had the 10 acres of property behind our house and got started.
You are the founder of Alaqua. What was Taylor’s role in the beginning?
Taylor was kind of on the sidelines at first. Then he started helping with the finances of Alaqua. Then he pitched in one day a week. And now—well, you can see what he’s doing.
We’ll get to Taylor in a minute. This might have started as an adoption facility for cats and dogs, but it is way more than that now. You’ve created an actual movement. And it’s moving in lots of ways. Did you anticipate that?
Well, I had big dreams. As we went along we learned things. While, unfortunately, there is a lot of animal abuse in this world, there is an incredible love of animals across all levels of society. Everybody has had some sort of interaction with pets. We didn’t just take care of animals that had been abused—we decided to get to the heart of the nature of animal abuse.
You’ve exposed puppy mills, people who abuse horses and farm animals, and brutal cases of mistreatment of household pets.
Law enforcement groups have not traditionally placed animal abuse at the top of their list of priorities. We’ve worked diligently to explain that if you don’t deal with people who abuse animals now, you’ll be dealing with them later. It’s been well documented that horrific criminals—from Ted Bundy to Jeffrey Dahmer and many others—started abusing animals when they were children. There is a direct correlation between animal abuse and child abuse, rape, and violence of all kinds.
Your approach to going after the root of animal abuse has been well documented in the media.
Much of the growth of Alaqua has come from print and traditional media covering the cases that we have exposed. Social media plays a big role also—we have 48,000 followers on Facebook. Every time we uncover a blatant case of abuse, our following grows.
Do you encounter different types of abuse in different geographical areas?
Yes, but here in a rural part of Florida, the traditional abuse is along the lines of a sort of good old boy approach, a “that’s the way my grandpa did it” type of thing.
Your approach is different from other groups. What is the difference in what you do and what PETA does?
From the day one, our philosophy has been mostly positive and not quite as threatening as other organizations. We try to attract people in a subtle manner, and then educate them once they’ve bought in to our program.
I know about Equine Interaction, where children with a variety of challenges spend time with the horses here. What about Unconditional Love?
We started a training program where we assign dogs to inmates in facilities in the Panhandle. The prisoners spend 10 to 12 weeks with the dogs, and after training, the dogs become service animals or quickly find a home through Alaqua. It’s a great program for the inmates, the dogs, and the dogs’ eventual owners.
You’ve forged an alliance with Jim Fowler. Television production companies are interested in a series on Alaqua. And, most recently, the adoption of 100-plus Great Danes has gotten lots of headlines. It seems like every day at Alaqua brings new projects and possibilities.
With the new facility becoming a reality, it is amazing how much interest is being generated by what we do.
Well, here’s Taylor. It may have taken you a while to warm up to this movement that your wife founded, but you’re all in now. In my life, I’ve known various families—in industries that are similar in a sense of size and scope and profitability. I’ve never known a scion of a major automobile dealer, a beer distributor or a soft drink wholesaler to do what you’ve just done. What is that?
Taylor Hood: I’ve taken a leave from my family’s car dealership to take on the position of Director of Operations here at Alaqua.
Well, you’ve been here all along. Since I’ve been on the board, you’ve handled the finances and you’ve been involved. But this is different.
Taylor: This thing has gotten so big, and Laurie and I make a good team. She’s the best I’ve ever seen in terms of marketing and dealing with the press. I’m not good at that. I don’t want to be on a radio show. But I’m getting ready to go clean out Kennel 5.
I really did this to take a lot of stuff off of Laurie’s plate. The process of dealing with legislation, fundraising, publicity and all sorts of animal cruelty issues is what Laurie needs to deal with. I’m happy to handle the operations here at Alaqua.
This is not really a question. In my life, I’ve been around a variety of charitable endeavors and groups, but never anything like Alaqua and never two people like you and Laurie. There is nothing about this that can be taken lightly. Your commitment is really 24 hours a day. You’re never off. It’s always on.
Taylor: It’s a massive project. We have all kinds of wonderful volunteers and staff. And we’re up to the task.