When Jacksonville’s newly named animal care chief Nikki Harris was first recruited to move to Florida from her native Omaha to run a First Coast No More Homeless Pets initiative, her answer was a definitive no.
But Rick DuCharme, founder and executive director of the nonprofit, wore her down by regularly sending her text messages that included only a number.
“He texted me the [local] temperature,” she said in a recent interview. “It was 78. It was snowing in Omaha.”
That was late 2011. In early 2012, she left the Nebraska Humane Society, attracted not only by the weather but the idea of being part of something big.
Euthanasia numbers were being drastically reduced in Jacksonville, DuCharme told her. He said the city was “on the verge” of achieving its goal of being a no-kill community, where the only shelter animals put down were unadoptable because of health or behavior issues.
“The numbers were impressive,” she said. “It was a pretty big deal for me to move here.”
Almost three years later, Harris, who has 11 years of experience in the field, has become one of the leaders of the local no-kill movement.
From First Coast No More Homeless Pets, she moved to Jacksonville’s Animal Care and Protective Services Division as shelter manager.
Mayor Alvin Brown recently appointed her to the top city job, division chief, after the departure of former chief Scott Trebatoski, who took a similar job in Tampa.
Brown said Harris, whose annual salary is $90,000, will continue the agency’s “innovative … strong track record” of saving animals’ lives.
“She understands the value of community partnerships and is committed to the mission of protecting public safety and ensuring the well-being of the community’s animals,” he said.
The local animal welfare community applauded her appointment.
“Nikki has shared our goal for making the city no-kill and sustaining no-kill,” DuCharme said. “She is the perfect person for that position. She shares our goal and is willing to work hard to achieve it.”
Denise Deisler, executive director of the Jacksonville Humane Society, said Harris was already an “integral member” of the ongoing no-kill partnership between the city, the Humane Society, First Coast No More Homeless Pets and animal rescue groups. “We are thrilled … Nikki came to Jacksonville with a rich animal welfare and business background,” she said. “The partnership has not skipped a beat.”
Harris, 39, said the appointment process was a “whirlwind” that included being interviewed and confirmed by the City Council.
Council members were encouraging but wanted to know her concerns and plans and what she saw as the job’s challenges. They wanted to know if she would maintain the no-kill efforts put into action by Trebatoski, DuCharme and other area animal welfare groups. Her answer was a definitive yes.
Harris was immediately thrust into the city budget process for fiscal 2015, which currently calls for her to hire a new shelter manager and two new supervisors to fill the administrative void left by her promotion and the departures of Trebatoski and his second in command, who also went to Tampa.
She said she revels in the job, particularly watching her staff go above and beyond to save animals’ lives.
In Trebatoski’s five-year tenure, their “mindset” was dramatically shifted, she said.
“It has been really cool to watch the staff look for reasons to save animals, [a change] from the mindset of, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ It has been an amazing transformation,” she said. “I love coming to work every day.”
In earlier years, an animal that was picked up in Jacksonville with a mangled leg after being hit by a car likely would have been put down. Now the shelter seeks medical help from the Humane Society’s hospital and local veterinarians and adoption or foster care from area animal rescue groups. Such a dog might have it’s leg amputated but it’s life saved, she said.
“To be in a community that has these options ... is a good place to be,” Harris said.
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109
NIKKI HARRIS RESUME
2003: Associate of science, veterinary technology, Vatterott College, Omaha
2007: Bachelor of science, human and social administration, Bellevue University, Omaha
2012: Master of arts, communications, Bellevue University
2003-04: Foster care coordinator/veterinary technician, Nebraska Humane Society, Omaha
2005-05: Licensed veterinary technician, Animal Emergency Clinic and Morgan Pet Clinic, Omaha
2005: Adoption coordinator, Nebraska Humane Society
2006-07: Community training and behavior coordinator, Nebraska Humane Society
2007: Trainer, Professional Veterinary Products, Omaha
2007-12: Director, placement and behavior, Nebraska Humane Society
2012-14: Adoption director, First Coast No More Homeless Pets, Jacksonville
February 2014: Animal program manager, Animal Care and Protective Services Division, Jacksonville
April 2014 - Current: chief, Animal Care and Protective Services Division, Jacksonville
Harris also has animal control officer certification and euthanasia certification from the Florida Animal Control Association.
Source: City of Jacksonville
To adopt or foster an animal, or volunteer or donate items, contact Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services, 2020 Forest St., (904) 630-2489 or go to coj.net/pets. Adoption hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.