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COO Jennifer Barker - FCNMHP Interview

Bill McNeal / July 2, 2019
COO Jennifer Barker and one of her many pets :) 

First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP) will hold their summer Mega Pet Adoption event at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds from Friday, July 12th – Sunday, July 14th!

First Coast No More Homeless Pets is a 501©3 nonprofit organization that that began in 2001 as SpayJax, when it was founded by Rick DuCharme. FCNMHP operates the largest spay/neuter clinic in the country, performing more than 20,000 surgeries a year. Their mission is to “end the killing of shelter cats and dogs in our community, northeast Florida, southeast Georgia, and across the nation.” While First Coast No More Homeless Pets isn’t a shelter, they do make shelters stronger with their Pet Food Bank, three times annual adoption events, and their low-cost or no-cost spay/neuter programs.

Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Barker joined the FCNMHP team in 2014. Jennifer has been essential to their success, helping with growth and design, as well as contributing to the design of FCNMHP’s second veterinary clinic location which opened in 2016.

We spoke with Jennifer about the challenges First Coast No More Homeless Pets faces, combating the stigma of adopting pets, and what residents of the First Coast can do to help protect our fur-friends.

So I have to ask to get it out of the way, last name of “Barker”?

Yes. LOL

Were you just destined to work with animals? Was this something that you knew from an early age you wanted to do?

Yes. Actually since being a little girl I’ve always loved animals and always had a connection. I started my first job when I was 14 years old working at a local veterinary clinic, and haven’t looked back since then. More than 20 years later I’m still here. It’s just so rewarding. I see the bond that these people and families have with these pets, and that is definitely something I want to support. So it’s a very fitting environment for me.

Now you came on board with First Coast No More Homeless Pets in 2014 is that right?


Where were you prior to that, and what was your role?

I was working in the Northeast managing a veterinary hospital. I had a lot of experience working in different types of veterinary hospital settings, whether it be general practice, emergency or specialty care, even managed an exotic veterinary hospital. So I was very committed to helping to make a difference and making sure people had a good experience when they came to see the veterinarian.

First Coast No More Homeless Pets began simply as a spay/neuter program back in 2001. You now also offer a Pet Food Bank and numerous adoption events throughout the year. FCNMHP does so much for the people and pets in our community, what are some of the challenges First Coast No More Homeless Pets faces every day?

So I think one of our challenges is probably similar to the challenges that animal welfare groups in our community share, and that really is just being overburdened with animals that need to find healthy homes and stay out of the shelters. Finding the resources to make all this happen and keep Jacksonville “no-kill” can certainly be a challenge. That’s why we rely so heavily on all of our supporters, and if people are in position to help donate to help us continue to save lives then that makes all of the difference. Probably the biggest challenge is being able to have the resources to keep up with the demands for animal welfare issues here in our community.

Volunteer with adoptable cat. 

Unfortunately, adopting a dog or cat can sometimes come with a stigma attached. How do you combat the myth that an adoptable pet is somehow inferior to a purebred or the idea that if it’s up for adoption there must be something wrong with it?

That’s actually the reason why we do these events, because we do want to focus on shelter awareness and adoption opportunities for animals that have wound up in the shelter for one reason or the other.

They’re so deserving of homes, just as other dogs and puppies and kittens are. Every animal has a different personality, they have a different story, and they have different traits. Once people take the time to get to know them, are able to meet them, and have some sort of experience or interaction with them you can see the bonds that happen almost immediately.

So there’s really no difference in where you get the pet, but we do these Mega Pet Adoptions because we bring over a dozen rescue and shelter groups together, and there is a huge variety of animals. We’re going to have almost 900 animals at this upcoming pet adoption, and it really just gives people the opportunity to see so many types of pets. Normally, they’re going to find someone that’s meant to be with their family.

Now a little bit about yourself, when you’re not helping lead First Coast No More Homeless Pets, what do you do with your free time? Do you have pets of your own?

I sure do! I have lots of fur babies at home. I have lots of rescued cats and dogs, and I also have horses and goats. My twin girls are 11 years old, and they’re very committed to taking care of the animals just as I am. We have lots of free time at home, and we usually spend it with our animals.

Wow! How many animals do you have? Horses and goats…LOL

LOL. Yeah, I can’t answer that question. LOL

Adopted cats and dogs?

I have lots of them. We live and breathe by the connection we share with animals. It really just makes our lives so much more rewarding. I believe very much in “animal assisted therapy” and how much animals can change & improve people’s lives. So that’s why we have so many critters at home. LOL

So you have horses, and as you just spoke about you have a special interest in “animal assisted therapy” with miniature horses. Is that right?

Yes, I did that years ago, and my goal is to be able to allow people to have opportunities to interact with animals. Not everyone can live on a farm or are able to just get outdoors and be around goats for example. So anything that I can do to help make that connection is really fulfilling for me. I’ve done that [animal assisted therapy] in my past, and love doing that here with dogs and cats in our community, and maybe can one day incorporate the farm animals.

Now this event will run from July 12th through the 14th?

Yes, it is a 3 day adoption event. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday July 12th, 13th, and 14th. Doors will open right at 10:00 AM and it goes each day until 6:00 PM. So this is actually our 27th Mega Pet Adoption event. And since we began holding these events back in 2012, we’ve saved the lives of over 17,000 animals.

You said earlier you’re going to have 900+ pets this weekend, is that right?

Yes. So we’ll have probably over 900 dogs and cats. All different breeds, and all different sizes and ages. I can tell you there’s going to be hundreds of kittens there, all sorts of colors.

So people can come down, and they’ll have the opportunity to take the animal outdoors. We have an outdoor play yard so a trained volunteer can actually take the dogs out of the cages for you, and it gives people the opportunity to be in an outdoor environment where they can take the time to observe the pet. Some pets are going to be really excited, and very eager to go for a walk. And some you’ll see just want to sit down next to you and give you kisses.

Yeah, I’ve seen the outdoor area where they get to go walk them, and the kids get one-on-one time with the pet they might be adopting. The dogs are just so excited to be outside. The kids are so excited to have the dog on a leash outside and doing it on their own. It seems like an amazing opportunity for them to get some one-on-one time with the dogs.

Definitely. And we help make families whole by letting them find their fur-ever friend. There’s so many children that meet their new best friends there. As well as lots of senior citizens come and they find the right animal. It’s definitely a really rewarding and lifesaving event.

And we can’t forget about all the rescue and shelter groups that come there. You know this time of year they are under stress because there’s so many animals entering the shelter. They’re working around the clock to keep these animals healthy and happy. Hopefully at the end of the event they’re [rescue and shelter groups] going home with no animals, so they can just take a minute to breathe and get ready for the next round of animals that will be entering the shelter.

So you’re bringing 900+ cats and dogs this time, what’s your record for the number of pets adopted in one weekend?

We’ve actually had over 1,000 adoptions on a weekend adoption event. A little over 1,200 adoptions was our largest number.

Oh wow!

We feel any number honestly is a success, but the goal is to get as many animals adopted into permanent homes. We have groups that take the time to share information on the pets, as much information as they have. Also, First Coast No More Homeless Pets will offer a free visit to one of our clinics. The new owner can bring the animal in, they can get a health checkup, talk with the veterinarian about any concerns they have, and hopefully we can help set them up for a successful pet ownership.

We do make sure all of the animals are already spayed or neutered. They are up to date with all of their vaccines. They also have a microchip, and the $20 pet adoption fee includes the city license as well.
A member of the Navy helps a kitten find its fur-ever home. 

When someone visits the event this weekend, and they find the dog or cat they want to make a part of their family, can you briefly walk us through what the process is like?

It’s a very exciting environment when you walk into the Jacksonville Fairgrounds because there’s 500 – 600 anxious dogs that are trying to talk to hopefully their new mom or dad. LOL. Once the family walks through, there are rows and rows of cages. So they can just take their time going from one end to the other, and hopefully a pet is going to stand out to them.

They would then be greeted by a volunteer that would help take the animal out of the cage for them if they would like to take them for a little walk, and be in the outdoor area where they can spend more time just trying to connect with that animal.

If they decide it’s going to be a good fit for their home, they will go back to the rescue group, and they’ll go through the adoption paperwork. It is a very fast process. There is an adoption contract that all of the groups like the new owners to sign. It’s very straight forward. They also take the opportunity to go over any of the health issues on the pet or any personality/traits they’re aware of. That way the owner has as much information as the rescue or shelter group does prior to taking the pet home. So at that point they’ll process the payment for the $20 pet adoption, and we have some goodies we’re going to send the new family home with.

On the way out the door, the most rewarding thing that we do is take a picture. That’s usually the first picture of the new family, the new whole family together, and we call them “Happy Tails”. It’s a really neat opportunity to see the pet and the family at the start of their lifelong journey together.

When a family comes this weekend, is there any information they need to bring with them? Do they need a Proof of Residence or a pet carrier? Should they bring their pets with them to the Fairgrounds to see how they may get along with the newest addition to the family?

We do have families that like to bring the other dog at home, and we do allow them to have a safe place where they can do one-on-one interactions. A meet and greet with the other pets in the household, and make sure they think that it is going to work out. They don’t have to do that, we usually know which animals are going to do well with other dogs and cats in the home, and ones that would probably be better suited to being the only pet. So people are able to do that if they want to, but they’re not required to. We make sure that all of the dogs are sent home secure on a leash, and all of the cats will be in carriers.
Happy Tails...Happy Parents 

If someone wanted to help First Coast No More Homeless Pets. If they wanted to donate their time, money, or pet food, how can they do that? What’s the best way for people in the community that want to to help FCNMHP?

We rely so heavily on everybody’s support, we try to make it as easy as possible. We have a lot of different ways people can support us. If it’s a monetary donation that works great, they can do that online or they can come in to either of our locations.

In addition if they’re looking for volunteer opportunities, which really make a difference for our day to day operations, and definitely at these events. We rely on over 300 volunteers to pull off this mega pet adoption. They can contact us over the phone or on the website. We have a Volunteer Director that can come in and talk to them about different positions we have where they can make a difference.

Donating pet food is great because we do have our Pet Food Bank. We’ve donated well over a million pounds of pet food to families that need it, and they have different drop off locations throughout the city. They can drop it off at one of our veterinary hospitals, and if it’s a large donation we can even help with the pickup as well.

A lot of high school students today are required to volunteer, does First Coast No More Homeless Pets work specifically with high schools? Have you had high school students volunteer to get the credit(s) that they need?

Yes. Absolutely. We use a lot of younger volunteers this time of year for that very reason. We partner with a lot of local schools. Frank Peterson is one of the local schools. We actually take a lot of their students, and we offer internship opportunities. Part of that does come with volunteer hours.

They have the opportunity to come in and work alongside the team, and help support the teams. They get exposed to everything we do, and they really get a good feel for what it would be like to have a job working with animals.

Is there anything else you’d like potential adopters to know before visiting the Mega Pet Adoption Event?

I think the biggest thing they should know is, it [adoption] is truly saving a life, when they take the time to get to know an animal that’s been in the shelter. If they decide that they can take that pet home and make it a part of their family, they’re opening up a cage for another animal that’s going to come in, and it doesn’t put the animals at risk for euthanasia. So it is a lifesaving event.

Every single animal that walks out of the Jacksonville Fairgrounds, and follows a new family to their car, they really have changed that pet’s life. And hopefully their life will be changed by it too.

I think that’s something that can be lost on people at times. I even forget about it sometimes myself. It’s not just this pet that you’re helping, you’re clearing up space for the next pet that comes in.

Yes. Absolutely. The local rescue and shelter groups work so hard to have the resources available to care for these animals, but there is a constant flow of pets coming in. People that are looking to make a difference are the true heroes of this event.

I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today, Jennifer. I know you all are very busy, as always.

We love what we do and making a difference here. We’re really excited about this event. It’s been several months since we’ve had one. So hopefully there are lots of families looking for new fur-babies!

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

About the Author

Bill McNeal / Digital Media Coordinator

As the Digital Media Coordinator, Bill's responsibilities are all things digital [of course] here at the Jacksonville Fair. That includes social media, web, video, and all online ticket sales. Bill works closely with Vice President of Marketing Gayle Hart to ensure our customers know about all of their favorite events at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds, as well as the annual Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair held here each fall since 1955.
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