TAMPA — Cristin Jackson and her husband, Steve, shuffled through rows of cages as yelps echoed through the gymnasium. They had only 15 minutes to make a decision and their two boys were waiting anxiously in the car.
The couple paused to pet a few dogs, their fingers poking through small holes in the black metal crates. Then Cristin gasped and they dropped to crouch in front of a 2-pound, black-and-white ball of fluff named Pumpkin.
“You’re a sweet little baby,” she told the poodle-mix puppy as she rocked it in her arms. “We’ll be back for you, I promise.”
The Jackson family was one of about 300 to win a lottery held by Hillsborough County Animal Rescue for designer-breed rescue dogs recently found sick and malnourished at Trish’s All Breeds Pet Grooming in Tampa. Some had broken bones and fur matted with feces and urine. They were packed into cages and terrified of people.
But on Sunday, after about two months of rehabilitation, they were on display inside All People’s Life Center on Sligh Avenue. Fifteen lottery winners at a time entered the gym with just 15 minutes to pick a furry friend from the lot.
By late afternoon, about 250 dogs had been adopted. About 50 more who are older and have medical problems were still available, and it was unclear whether they would be adopted by the end of the day.
One of the first inside the gym was Beth Price, 54. She drove from Sarasota after learning Friday that her name had been drawn.
“I’ve been looking for love,” she said, noting the recent death of her sister. “My family and I are just looking to put out the love we lost.”
Price found a small, apricot-colored poodle-mix. It came to the front of the cage when she walked by, ready with “kisses, kisses, kisses,” she said, and that’s when she knew it had to come home with her.
Later, it was Iskra Shraccia’s turn. She darted back and forth between two cages. “My heart is splitting,” the 36-year-old Tampa woman told an adoption worker helping her decide on a dog. But again and again, she returned to a black, 5-pound poodle.
“Are you coming home with me?” Shraccia asked the dog, at ease in her arms. It looked up at her and the deal was done. The adoption worker smiled and motioned Shraccia toward a nearby payment station.
To discourage lottery winners from reselling dogs for profit, the county charged between $300 and $450 for each adoption. The money will fund a new 2,500-square-foot veterinary suite at the Pet Resource Center, said director Scott Trebatoski, and will feature exam tables, a grooming station, medicine storage and more.
He was beaming at the event Sunday, filled with gratitude for the more than 1,300 people who entered the lottery to help the dogs. It’s been “all hands on deck,” at the center since they were rescued, he said.
“I had animals in my office and I’ve never had animals in my office,” Trebatoski said. “There will definitely be a crash for those of us who have gotten close to these dogs.”
He already is planning a one-year reunion for the dogs and their new owners. It will likely be held in the same gymnasium, and it will give workers at the center a chance to see the progress each dog has made in its new home.
“We have been loving, feeding and caring for these dogs for awhile now," said Lori Letzring, a division director for the Pet Resource Center. “It’s extremely gratifying to see them go home.”
After looking at a few more dogs, Cristin and Steve Jackson circled back to Pumpkin. He jumped to the front of the cage, standing up on his hind legs with paws stretched out toward them.
Cristin scooped him up again, looking down at his fuzzy face.
“I told you we’d be back," she said with grin, then headed to introduce her sons to the family’s newest member.