If ever someone should be honored for the work they do for animals, it should be Alicia Aballi.
The 81-year-old Aballi owns and operates the Born Free Pet Shelter, 19015 SW 208 St., on a five-acre tract in the Redland. There she rescues all types of dogs that have been abandoned by their owners, then feeds, maintains and cares for them, averaging around 140 dogs per day.
“I don’t like to cage them, so that’s why I named it Born Free,” said Aballi, who opens the pens on her fenced property and allows each dog a half-hour of freedom each day. “I’ve been rescuing dogs since 1980 when my husband, Arturo, moved here from the Long Island Jewish Hospital to work for Miami Children’s Hospital.
“But, even as a kid I used to bring dogs home that I would find in the streets of Havana, Cuba. I guess I have this in my blood because I was only 7 or 8 years old at the time.”
Aballi lived with her husband in Key Biscayne, but as time passed she accumulated a large number of dogs and had to have room to keep them. So her husband helped her buy the five acres in the Redland.
“It used to be a tomato patch,” she said.
Aballi would make the daily commute from Key Biscayne to the Redland to take care of the dogs she had rescued.
“I continued working as a teacher so I would be able to take care of the dogs and they were coming in very fast,” she said.
And then her husband died in 1997 and Aballi admits that her task became a great deal more difficult.
“Of course, it has been rough since then,” she said. “When my husband died, I built this house [in the Redland]. I decided that I could do more for the dogs if I lived here instead of coming from Key Biscayne every day and then having to go back. I was working as a teacher then and I would take my whole salary and give it to the dogs.
Aballi currently has 143 dogs on the premises and under her care.
“That’s with the one I just rescued on my way home this afternoon,” she said. “I saw it as it was thrown out of a car window on Krome Avenue. But that’s about the average number for us; three or four get adopted and another five or six will come in. It’s not a game; it’s serious business.”
Aballi said she supports the Born Free operation through donations that she solicits when she transports a few of the animals to PetSmart locations on weekends and offers them for adoption.
“I give all of the money to the dogs, except for food for myself,” she said. “The rest I have to beg for. It’s very hard to ask continuously for money. I go to PetSmart on weekends —the one on Coral Way on Saturday and the one on US 1 and 136th Street on Sunday — and I sit there with the dogs and wait to see if one of them will get adopted, and I ask for money. But, now it’s very hard. People used to give more money years ago, but now it’s hard for everybody. I’ve had to cut down on the type of food I give to the dogs and that hurts me very much.”
Aballi said that when a dog comes to Born Free, it has to go to the vet for a complete checkup.
“We check it for everything under the sun,” she said. “It costs us over $100 each time a dog comes in.”
The bill for veterinary services at Born Free averages $90,000 a year and Aballi said that most veterinarians only give her small discounts on their services when she brings in a dog for medical care.
However, she has nothing but praise for Dr. Terry Carro of Miami Veterinary Internists, who she said readily treats and operates on her dogs and gives her a discount, then patiently waits to be paid.
“She’s an excellent vet and specialist, and she gives me 20 percent off and never asks me to pay the bill until I finally have the money,” she said. “Right now, I owe her $4,000, but she doesn’t mention it or say a word about it.”
Aballi charges a $250 fee to adopt one of her dogs. The fee helps defray the cost of caring for the animals — food, medical checkups, heartworm pills, anti-flea pills, tick collars, daily upkeep of the Born Free facility — but she does make exceptions.
“It depends on the person,” she said. “I visit the home of anyone who wants to adopt one of my dogs. I like to know what other animals they have and whether they have children, and if the dog will get along with the children. I want to know all of this before we sign the contract.”
Aballi said Born Free also will take a dog back if, for some reason, the adoption does not work out.
“Any time they want to bring the dog back, they can,” she said. “Just last week, I got one back because the couple got a divorce. After three years, the dog came back.”
Aballi said Born Free will host a benefit event later this month on Key Biscayne to raise money for the facility.
“We’re having a ‘Howl-O-Ween’ for dogs and other pets on Oct. 30,” she said. “It’s going to be at the Community Church on Key Biscayne, 355 Glenridge Rd. Admission is $10, or $20 for the whole family. People have to bring their dogs in costumes. We’re going to have music and food and a lot of contests and prizes for the best costume. We’re hoping to get a big turnout.”
For more information about Howl-O-Ween or the Born Free Pet Shelter, call 305-903-6610 and 305-361-5507, or go online to www.bornfreepetshelter.com.