FORT PIERCE, FLA. — This weekend will mark the end of a ‘dark era’ for a Fort Pierce animal shelter.
The new Sunrise Humane Society is opening to the public for the first time on Saturday, following years of turmoil behind the shelter’s walls under previous management with the former Humane Society of St. Lucie County, including a criminal investigation and the death of a volunteer.
Prospective pet owners will see more than a fresh coat of paint outside a more welcoming shelter.
Inside, there are safer, cleaner conditions that new management promises to keep up and maintain better than it had been in years past.
“Relief. I think we’re all relieved,” said Dr. Julie Kittams, a veterinarian and Sunrise Humane Society Board President. “When we open it’s going to get really busy in this lobby,” Dr. Kittams predicts.
She gave WPTV a tour of the shelter Friday, showing off major improvements made at the Savannah Road location after the former Humane Society of St. Lucie County lost its contract.
She started with the cats.
“The housing for cats was really sub-par,” Dr. Kittams explained. Now, they’re housed in a ‘cat haven.’
“This is where you come into cat haven to see all the cats and each one of these rooms has oh, 6 to 8 cats in it,” Dr. Kittams said. Visitors will see fewer cages, and more open space which helps the cats become more adoptable.
“This is a very stress-free way to house cats,” Dr. Kittams explained.
The former Humane Society of St. Lucie County had extensive financial problems that trickled into major maintenance issues with the Fort Pierce building. Bad electrical systems and rusty cages only scratched the surface of safety concerns.
Dogs have better air temperature control, cleaner runs and kennels, and outside, Dr. Kittams says the shelter is hoping to raise money to continue improving their play space.
“Put in a bunch of play yards with shade cloths,” Dr. Kittams said.
That play space is the site in 2019 where a volunteer at the former shelter was mauled to death by a dog. She was alone and there were no cameras to show what happened.
Now there are working cameras outside in the play area. “It’s on a recording loop and all of the staff if they’re walking a dog, it’s two staff members per dog,” Dr. Kittams said.
“They wear belts that have walkie talkies, horns,” added Dale Mutchler, the former volunteer of the previous shelter who helped prompt a criminal investigation by the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office in 2019, which contributed to the former shelter losing its contract with St. Lucie County and the City of Fort Pierce.
“There was abuse, neglect. There was a lot. A lot. It was a long, long list,” Mutchler said about his complaint.
Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, Mutchler said the new shelter is somewhere he’s proud to work.
“Things are very different,” Mutchler said.
New staff says they are committed to better transparency and better serving St. Lucie County and Fort Pierce’s homeless animals.
“We have to do it even better. Not just better, but even better,” Dr. Kittams said.
The shelter is still organizing its volunteer program which it expects to start in a few months.
The Humane Society of St. Lucie County now has only a Port St. Lucie location, but it is run by new management separate from the previous leadership behind the years of code enforcement, maintenance, financial, and animal welfare concerns.
The new management and Port St. Lucie city leaders say they are happy with the partnership.