Key Biscayner and founder of Born Free Pet Shelter, Alicia Aballi has saved hundreds of animals since 1981. Now living at her 5 acre property in Homestead, she and her team of dedicated volunteers continue to care for rescue dogs in a humane, open environment where they can exercise and maintain a healthy life while awaiting adoption or in which to live out their remaining years happily when adoption is not an option.
In 1981, after moving to Key Biscayne while working in NW Dade as a teacher Alicia Aballi began rescuing dogs from the streets of Miami and Key Biscayne. The number of dogs grew to over fifty. In 1993 upon the passing of her physician husband, Alicia took her grassroots efforts to the Redlands where she stills cares for dogs at the age of 92.
“I’ve taken care of animals since I was a little girl growing up in Cuba,” she says. “I love helping anyone in need, whether it’s animals or people; it makes me feel good. I just wanted to find a way to continue to do that.”
She is the daughter of Jorge Govantes, a Cuban ambassador to Switzerland in the pre-Castro era. She came to the United States in 1959, received a Masters Degree in Education from Memphis State. In the years following, she taught in Tennessee and in New York before moving to Miami in 1981, where she taught English and Spanish for the Dade County Public School system. Upon her arrival in Miami, Aballi settled in Key Biscayne where she continued her life-long practice of taking in animals in need.
The Key Biscayne community has always been very committed to the Shelter’s mission. Brigitte de Langeron from Key Biscayne Luxury Real Estate helped with the garage sales during the grassroots years, and the Key Biscayne Community Church continues to help with fundraising efforts. Back when Ms. Aballi lived on the Key, the Islander paper would feature dogs each week to help with adoptions. When a dog was surrendered, abandoned or lost, the Key Biscayne Police Department would call Ms. Aballi to come pick them up. There have been too many helpful Key Biscayners to name them all and that continues today through strong resident support at the annual Gala.
“Hurricane Irma hit Homestead really hard,” says Ms. Zanghi Born Free Fundraising Committee Chairperson. “We didn’t lose any dogs, thank God, and at the time we had about 125 dogs at the shelter, but we did lose a tremendous amount of infrastructure, including 25 of our dog shelters. So we were in dire need of support. So that year, at our annual fundraiser, I went to our donors and said this is a really special year, we’re really in trouble and we really need your help and raised an impressive $350,000. Before that we were raising about $200,000, so our donors really came through for us. I was so happy about that. We were able to replace in that one year all those 25 dog shelters.”
Over the past 40 years the shelter has seen hundreds of amazing success stories, such as Mario, who was found as a stray in Homestead and arrived at the shelter in March 2019.
Mario“He was diagnosed with by the vet with a very bad case of alopecia, lesions and other skin infections,” says Lorena Barros, former Social Media Manager. “These health issues didn’t deter him from being a happy energetic two year old. ” After seeing multiple specialists, it was found that environmental allergies were the main cause of the hair loss. Mario patiently endured regular shots, medications and medicated bathes. He was fostered by two loving families who helped him get back to being a healthy dog. In October 2020, an experienced shepherd couple, who knew how to handle dogs with these health issues, stepped forward, fell in love and adopted him. It took a village of loving, caring people and generous monetary donations to make this happen.”
Toby and Flo
At 13 years old, Toby was surrendered to the shelter when his owner passed away.
“After more than a year of living at the shelter, we decided that no senior dog should live out their golden years in a shelter and took Toby (on the left) home to foster,” says Sophie Gillette, Social Media Administrator. “In the summer of 2020, we took him and his foster sister, Flo, on holiday to upstate New York where he went on hikes, saw many waterfalls, and had the time of his life. I created videos to promote Flo and posted them on Born Free Pet Shelter’s Instagram pages. On one of these posts, Lori from Georgia, noticed this sweet German Shepherd in the background and called to see if he was available for adoption. Toby now lives with a little brother, adores his new dad, and seems to be getting younger and younger. His forever mom, Lori, makes sure that he gets lots of car rides and at 14 years old, he is now loved and living the best retirement lifestyle that most dogs only dream of.” Flo was adopted only a month later and is also happy and loved. Thank you Lori and Jacob.
And there are still plenty of dogs still waiting for their own happy-ever-after.
“Elena is a one-of-a-kind wonderful dog,” says Maria DeLange, Adoptions and Volunteers Coordinator. “She is sweet, smart, loves people, and is well-behaved.” She arrived at the shelter when someone found her on the street. She had no chip, no collar, and was limping. Elena’s limping cleared up, but, unfortunately, she has spent two long years at the shelter with no adoption interest. Elena’s lack of adoption interest is hard to understand because she is a great dog and volunteers love her. Since day one in her new foster home, Elena has been very playful with her foster mom. She loves playing with her toys, especially the plushy ones, and she loves to show off her tug-of-war skills. She is an independent dog, but she also likes to snuggle with her humans. Elena is exceptionally well-behaved in the house and is house-trained. Elena would make a great addition to any family. We are hoping that special someone opens their home to this wonderful girl.
Over the summer the Shelter is holding Special fundraiser! Our hope is to raise $40,000 over the next 40 days through $40 (or more) donations. The Mark and Carol Zemmel Fund for Human/Animal Connection has generously pledged to match every dollar raised, dollar for dollar, up to $40,000.
“Our annual fundraiser is Dec. 4, 2021,” she says. “This is our major fundraiser, this is where we traditionally raise all of our money. Our expenses to run the shelter are about $300,000-$350,000 a year, just for operations. Most of that is for veterinary bills. We have a lot of older dogs who need annual checkups. If you’re a dog owner, you know that after they get past a certain age, those checkups for senior dogs are very expensive, and we keep dogs until they pass away if they’re not adopted, so our veterinary expenses probably run about $150,000 per year. But because we’re run almost entirely by volunteers, we’re really efficient in our use of money, so every penny that goes to the shelter, goes to the dogs.”
Over the years through volunteer dedication, donor generosity, and Alicia’s driving force, Born Free has flourished. Please continue to support Born Free’s mission by giving generously to our summer fundraiser and help us continue our good works.