Story by BRUCE COLLIER, photos from Nikki Swedberg
When Nikki and David Swedberg were notified that they had been nominated and selected as the DeFuniak Herald Beach Breeze 2011 Christmas Family, they asked if they could be interviewed, not at home, but at the Walton County Animal Shelter on Triple G Road, north of DeFuniak Springs. The reason for this was quickly evident. Both Nikki and David spend so much of their time at the shelter, and the work they do in animal rescue is such a passion with them, that the shelter is almost a second home, as well as office and staging area for their efforts to find safe and permanent homes for dogs, cats, and even pigs.
Nikki and David met with the Herald Breeze on a recent weeknight, in the company of Casper, a friendly Boxer with a Christmas jingle bell collar, who sat in for part of the interview. Casper is one of 11 dogs that live with the Swedbergs (five are foster dogs, six are permanent members of the family), along with two cats and eight pot-bellied pigs on 20 acres the Swedbergs own in Mossy Head. The Swedbergs have been married for three years. David, a native of Samson, Ala., is employed at Lowe’s in Crestview. Nikki, originally from Niceville, is a vet tech and animal rescue coordinator. Both put in uncountable hours at the shelter, particularly Nikki, whom David calls “the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.”
The object the Swedbergs are moving against is the problem of what to do with the hundreds of unwanted, lost or abandoned cats, dogs and other animals in this area. David calls it a “continuous battle,” while Nikki prefers “continuous opportunity.” Coming into work at 6 a.m., Nikki is at the shelter until around 12:30 or 2 p.m. She continues at home on rescue work, putting in an average of 80-plus hours a week, “at the very least.” David leaves a 40-hour a week job at Lowe’s to come to the shelter. He often finds himself dispatched to transport rescued animals to their new homes and families, or assisting others to do the same, moving dogs to Texas and pot-bellied pigs to New Hampshire, among other places.
Nikki has been working in animal rescue since 1998, when a neighbor in Crestview got her into what has become a life mission. David has always had a dog in his life, but credits Nikki with introducing him to rescue work. They are not alone.
At the time of this interview, the Walton County Animal Shelter housed 110 dogs and around 54 cats. Holiday times see many people given puppies or kittens as gifts, and some will inevitably decide afterward that they can’t take care of the animal, or the animal will run away, and eventually end up at the shelter. Owner reclaim rate is reportedly low, between 2 and 5 percent, leaving the rescue services to try to connect animals with responsible owners. The shelter holds animals for 10 days, all the while networking with rescues in Florida, the rest of the U.S. and Canada.
A recent rescue that moved a dog to Texas took the efforts of 15 – 20 people to get him there safely. “It takes a village,” says Nikki. Rescue groups specialize in breeds as well as general rescues, and Facebook has been a great boost to awareness and support. Nikki’s rescue efforts have so far attracted some 1,800 Facebook friends. “Education is crucial,” both agree.
The work is steady and sometimes frustrating, but the Swedbergs get motivation from any success. “If you can save one it’s worth every second,” they say. Last year they personally conveyed 15 dogs to the area around Disney World. This past Thanksgiving they assisted a University of Central Florida student in safely transporting 27 rescued puppies to the St. Petersburg area – in a Mustang.
In their rare time off, the Swedbergs enjoy watching football, spending time with family, fishing, and exploring around the Choctawhatchee River. “It’s very relaxing,” says David.