Ten years after founding Alaqua Animal Refuge, Laurie Hood is poised and ready to take it to the next level.
To help in the endeavor, Hood's husband Taylor has come onboard full time as director of operations at Alaqua.
"We have grown so large and have so many programs and fundraisers, and with us about to build, I needed the help," said Laurie.
Hood was looking to hire a director of operations, but could not find the perfect fit.
"They were either over qualified or had their own ideas of how it should be run," she said.
So Taylor quit his job at his family's car dealership to run the refuge.
"We decided it was best for the family and business," said Laurie. "He has totally embraced it and loves it."
"It has grown so much with her work with legislation and cruelty training," said Taylor. "The size it has grown to, I knew what was going to happen. She really needed someone to take it off her and I was already close to it. It's great to be a part. We are a good team. She really excels at some things and I do a decent job at some things. She does not like the day to day as much, but loves the legislative side. I'm more numbers and process. We make a great team. It's been fun. Hey, yesterday I got to drive a tractor!"
It was 10 years ago in January, right after having their second child, when Laurie discovered that Walton County did not have an animal shelter. All dogs that were picked up and taken to the county-run pound were euthanized after seven days if not claimed.
Hood visited the pound and the conditions she saw were not acceptable in her eyes. Since she lived on 10 acres, she asked if she could take some of the dogs, but was told no, not unless she was a rescue organization.
"I knew I had to do something," she said.
Hood went home that day and established Alaqua Animal Refuge as a 501c3.
She returned to the pound the next day and took 38 dogs home with her.
"I remember the day she came home with the 38 dogs," said Taylor.
Even though he had never owned a dog of his own, he said he knew it had to be done.
"And over the years, it has been confirmed. There is such a need," he said.
From those first 38 dogs that were lucky enough to be rescued, Alaqua is presently home to 60 or 70 adoptable dogs, around 50 cats, 40 horses, a menagerie of farm animals, cows, pigs, goats, chickens, emus, and 80 exotic birds.
"We are now one of largest bird rescues in Florida," said Laurie. "A lot of them have to become sanctuary birds because they have been passed around so much that they don't make good pets."
She keeps the special-needs animals at her house or in her barn.
"I always have a litter of puppies in my barn," she said.
The refuge now employs 17 people and has more than 400 active volunteers. It requires $80,000 a month to run.
Her sons, now 10 and 11, can give a tour of the refuge better than anyone, she said.
"It's a family deal," she said. "I hear them come home and they preach the message. It's wonderful. It's part of who they are. I love being able to raise my kids this way."
As the operation has grown, so have the refuge’s needs. As Laurie stepped out more and more to find funding and discuss the need, the more attention the refuge received.
Last year alone, the head of the Humane Society of the United States visited and Laurie addressed the Florida Legislature. She currently serves on the board of the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center and as the district leader for the Humane Society of the United States.
Before his death, she became friends with philanthropist M.C. Davis. A couple of years ago, Davis and his wife gifted 85 acres to Hood to expand the refuge.
Another gift of money willed to them allowed the purchase of 15 more acres.
The 100 acres is just a quarter of a mile east of the Biophilia Center.
"It's beautiful, with a spring-fed creek that runs through it," she said.
Hood has big plans for the property.
The 14 buildings currently on her 10 acres will be moved to the new property once it is ready.
A 4,000-square-foot welcome center will be constructed that will have 10 offices, a reception area, an adoption area, and a gift shop.
There will also be a covered horse arena where an equestrian interaction program can take place. It will also be an event venue where educational field trips would be welcome.
There will be a small stage where concerts and educational seminars can be held.
"We are trying to create one-stop spot for animal welfare," said Laurie. "And I have designed it so it sustains itself."
Hood envisions a farmers market or something similar being there, and concerts being held there so it doubles as a refuge and a way to raise money to save animals.
Another thing she is most excited about is the 4,000-square-foot veterinary hospital she plans to build to rehabilitate and release animals.
"It will be a teaching hospital with four surgery suites where you can observe from a covered porch for teaching purposes," Hood said. "School kids can come observe and a veterinarian can pipe out his voice and tell kids what he is doing."
There will also be a forensics room for forensics testing.
"Interns from veterinarian schools can come here," she said. "It's exciting."
Hood has designed the new compound to be like a theme park with a dog land, a cat land and others.
"Part of the vision is to create an alternative to taking kids to the zoo," she said. "I want to see animals have the best life."
A covered bridge will be built over the creek. From the roof of the bridge Hood wants to hang 4 million dog tags as a memorial to the 4 million dogs and cats that weren't lucky enough to be rescued each year.
"Right now, 3 to 4 million dogs or cats are euthanized because there is nowhere for them to go," she said. "I want each exhibit to capture that and spur people to get involved."
To build this type of facility will require a capital campaign. Hood said $1 million has already been raised to get started, but estimates she will need another $15 million to complete.
"We will be looking for grants and funding opportunities," she said.
The opportunity to sponsor buildings is available.
The site plan has been turned in and she is looking to have her development order in March or April.
So far, the land has been burned and logged to clear the underbrush. Hardwoods and oaks were kept.
"My whole life I worked different jobs and I see now that each one prepared me for what I am doing now," said Hood. "I did marketing for the PGA, putting together events, doing graphics, writing memos and grants. I never thought I would be doing this. But my mom said she saw the signs in me early on. I had dogs, cats and rabbits growing up, and once when I was about 7 years old I found a bird that had been injured by a BB gun. I went door to door making people aware of what happened."
Hood said she sees that same quality in one of her sons.
These days she gets excited lobbying to change the lives of animals.