How this Local Pet Service Goes Above and Beyond for Animals and their Owners

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Since 2010, Winter Park Lost Pets (WPLP) has reunited pets with their owners with assistance from volunteers and members of the community. Co-founded by Winter Park residents Judy Charuhas and Shelley Heistand, the organization has found nearly 2,400 pets and helped provide services from grooming to vaccinations.

It all started when Heistand, a local realtor, would receive calls from clients and friends whose pets had gone missing. With help from her friend, Charuhas, the requests turned into a labor of love. “They would ask her to be on the lookout while driving around town,” said Charuhas. “We would scour the area, determined to bring lost pets back home.”

Here, Charuhas and Heistand tell the32789 how WPLP evolved into a nonprofit, and how you can help their effort.

What inspired you to go from casually searching for lost pets to starting a website? (Charuhas) One day we were searching for a lost Yorkie in the scorching heat. That’s when we realized there had to be a better way to do this. Shelley proposed to sponsor a website dedicated to the search and rescue if I could find someone to build it. With that, the Winter Park Lost Pets website and database was born, and the Lost Pets Foundation was created shortly after.

What kind of services does the Foundation provide? (Charuhas) The foundation is our 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides free-of-cost or discounted veterinary and grooming services. We host many community events in partnership with Orange County Animal Services, Bleu’s Bubbles Pet Salon, and Pet Supermarket. With the donations we receive, we’re able to provide microchipping and registration services, nail trimming, emergency vet services, spaying, neutering, vaccinations, and ID tags. We’re focused on educating the community at these events on pet safety and the importance of registering microchips, as many people fail to understand it’s a two-step process. The foundation has also allowed us to donate funds to local shelters to support animals in need.

What does it take to reunite owners with their lost pets? (Charuhas) It requires a lot of effort from the community. We rely on pet owners to register their companions in our confidential database. That way, when a pet is found and uploaded to our site, we can search our database for a potential match. If a match is identified, we contact the owners. We share lost and found listings through our email list, Facebook, and Twitter to spread the word.

(Heistand) We also have a group of dedicated volunteers who call themselves “chair warriors,” who sit outside and actively watch for pets in their neighborhoods. They share our posts and provide intel on pet sightings, which allows more people to be on the lookout. They are very effective in situations where a pet lives right down the street. We even have support from delivery drivers who keep an eye out for missing pets while on their routes. Our goal is to leave no stone unturned, and to make the process as quick as possible.

Have any city officials recognized your efforts? (Charuhas) The city government, including Winter Park Mayor Phil Anderson, is supportive of our efforts and we have received positive feedback from city workers.

(Heistand) We’ve donated resources to the city, such as microchip scanners and pet oxygen masks for the Fire Department. These donations have helped save countless lives of pets during emergency situations. In addition, many Winter Park locals contribute to the cause by sharing our posts on social media and by volunteering.

Does WPLP operate solely on help from volunteers? (Charuhas) Winter Park Lost Pets is entirely operated by me, Shelley, and our volunteers. We have a network of volunteers who are affiliated with rescue organizations and actively search for lost pets in the community. They walk the streets, monitor social media, and use their knowledge of the area to help reunite pets with their owners. They check to see if animals have shown up at the shelter or have been reported missing, which increases the chances of a pet being reunited with its owner.

Are there any misconceptions about the organization you’d like to address? (Charuhas) One of the misconceptions is that we can simply pick up a lost pet as soon as someone calls us about it. In reality, we rely on the community to help us in the search and rescue process. For us to start the process of reuniting a lost pet with its owner, the pet must be in the physical possession of someone. This means that if members of the community see a loose pet on the street, they must take the initiative to safely capture and hold onto the animal until we can reunite it with its owner. It truly takes a village to bring lost pets back home.

To view lost pet listings, and for information on pet safety and supporting the cause, visit the WPLP website.

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