By MONIQUE WELCH, Tampa Bay Times
SPRING HILL, Fla. (AP) — Many thought he was crazy.
His girlfriend, family and friends tried to talk him out of it.
But once Kris Rotonda became aware of the struggles the Humane Society of Pasco County faced — a lack of funding, limited number of volunteers, no real building to house the animals — he knew something had to be done to shed a light on the conditions.
So he packed rice cakes, protein bars, pre-packaged meals, an ample supply of water, a pillow, blanket and three lanterns, and barricaded himself in a cage with different dogs at the shelter for 10 nights from Dec. 28 until Jan. 6.
“(Shelters) are often overlooked,” Rotonda said. “I kind of wanted to wake up Pasco County and the community a little more and put myself in the position of these animals to understand how solitude gets to you and how to deal with it. It’s very difficult, and it gives you a different perspective.”
Rotonda, a 32-year old Safety Harbor resident, has been an animal lover since 2009, when he rescued Jordan — a 13-year old German Shepherd, Bullmastiff and Samoyed mix from Pinellas County Animal Services.
Jordan was his best friend. She came into Rotonda’s life at a time when had no family, no friends and was unsure if he wanted to stay in college.
“She saved me and changed a lot for me,” he said.
But in August of 2018, it was Rotonda’s turn to try to save her. Jordan was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, a rare form of malignant cancer that forms in the blood vessels of dogs and moves to various tissues of the body.
Rotonda, who works in real estate flipping houses, pulled together $16,000 for surgery to buy Jordan more time.
But she died two months later.
Shortly after, Rotonda’s family gifted him another dog — a Goldendoodle named Smooch — and he started a foundation in her honor with a goal to help shelters in need.
Jordan’s Way has secured partnerships with top animal food companies like Chewy and Purina. Rotonda’s 10-day stay at the Humane Society of Pasco was another way to help.
But when he first told administrators his idea, they were concerned.
“My first reaction was, this guy’s crazy,” said vice president Christine DePaolo.
For starters, the shelter didn’t have a building for Rotonda to sleep in.
A small, 30-year-old mobile home on a large field houses up to 20 of its smallest cats and puppies. Everything else, including the main dog kennels, is outdoors and lacks lighting. Though the property has a fence, wild animals wander into the field at night.
“It’s a scary place outside at night,” DePaolo said. “But he said, ‘I’m not scared’.”
DePaolo agreed to let Rotonda stay but checked on him three or four times the first night to make sure he was okay.
Rotonda slept on the cement in a cage and passed time by watching marathons of Everybody Loves Raymond on his iPad. He slept when he could, and played and cuddled with the dogs.
The only time he left the cage was to go outside to play with the animals from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., to shower and tend to his daughters, ages 2 and 4.
Many are stunned he pulled it off.
But it wasn’t Rotonda’s first stunt.
Last July, he stayed overnight for 72 hours at the YOUR Humane Society SPCA shelter in Sumter County.
That experience was worse, he said.
Staff employees treated him like a dog (as he asked them to), taking him outside only for an hour and a half to play and use the bathroom.
“I told the shelter, ‘Don’t give me any special treatment’,” he said. “’Treat me like a German Shepherd.’”
It was hot. He couldn’t shower. There were bugs. The smell of urine filled his nostrils. And the loud barking of up to 50 dogs kept him up at night.
But he remembered the reason he did it— to honor Jordan and give people a view into what it’s like for animals to stay in a shelter.
A video of the experience was shared by popular animal website, The Dodo, and received more than eight million views.
Rotonda said his experience at the Humane Society of Pasco was much easier.
Each night, he posted a live video on the shelter’s Facebook page and chose a different topic to promote. One night, he asked for monetary donations. Other nights, he asked the public to donate items like harnesses, toys and food.
Each live video received more than 1,000 views. More importantly, DePaolo said, they helped the shelter bring in donations and get many of its dogs adopted.
“He’s helped clear our kennels out,” DePaolo said. “They get adopted rather quickly after his live videos. Some come the next day, and we’ve had dogs that come to us and 24 hours later they’ve got a new home. And one day we had a donation of $1,100 waiting for us.”
The shelter has been trying to raise money to expand and construct a building on the property with indoor kennels. But to do so, it needs to raise at least $100,000.
It has managed to raise at least half of that within the past three years thanks to fundraisers and the support of local businesses. But it recently took a step backwards when it had to use roughly $10,000 of its building fund to pay for some of the dogs’ veterinary expenses.
With Rotonda’s help, the shelter is slowly getting back on its feet.
“He’s brought a lot of attention, and we’re incredibly grateful for him,” DePaolo said. “For many years, people didn’t know where we were or even that we existed. But now they do.”
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