TAMPA – Heydi Acuña developed compassion for animals at a young age.
In her native Bogotá, Colombia, she didn’t have much. But her mother, Liliana, taught her to give to those who are less fortunate.
“If there was a dog in the street, we would give him food,” said Acuña, 29, explaining how common it was to find stray dogs in Bogotá.
When Acuña finished high school, she began studying to be a veterinarian. In her first college semester, her father brought her to Tampa, where at 17 she worked at a preschool while studying at Hillsborough Community College.
“During my preschool work, I volunteered at the Humane Society and at a shelter,” Acuña said. “I gained notoriety, and people called me saying, ‘I found a dog, Heidy, what do I do? I found a cat.’”
In 2017, when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Acuña volunteered for Compassion Kind, an animal group, to rescue pets from the island disaster.
For her, the moment was pivotal.
She started the Mercy Full Project, a Tampa Bay nonprofit that rescues animals. Her husband, Nashwan Bandayan, gave her a car to start the effort.
“Initially I worked in my house garage rescuing dogs. We installed AC units and had about 20 dogs,” said Acuña, who quickly began looking for a new location.
When the pandemic arrived, every day she saw an alarming number of abandoned animals.
“Many dogs lost their owners to COVID. It was crazy,” Acuña said. “I started just before the pandemic, and then dog abandonment exploded. While owners died in hospitals, animals died of hunger in their houses. It was terrible.”
In Mercy Full Project’s first year, Acuña rescued 300 dogs. Then 400. From 2021 to date, more than 800 rescues and adoptions have occurred, she said.
The increase in abandoned animals is shocking. A University of Florida study from June 2022 revealed that Florida’s animal shelters struggled to hang on to years of progress during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shelter admissions increased by 11%, or more than 36,000 cats and dogs in 2021, according to the study. Euthanasia of cats increased for the first time since the UF College of Veterinary Medicine began reporting statewide data in 2013, the study says.
According to the Humane Society Tampa Bay, in 2020 they took in 10,420 animals. In 2021, it had an intake increase of 27%. The group stayed open during the pandemic when other shelters closed.
Acuña said pet abandonment continues to rise.
“They throw them away, skin and bones. Dogs that come with snouts tied, cats that bounce from car windows,” Acuña said.
According to Acuña, economic inflation has contributed to a dramatic increase in abandoned dogs.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.
Explore all your options
“When things start to go down, the first one out the door is the dog or cat,” she said. “People can’t throw away a sick relative.”
One pet that Mercy Full rescued during the pandemic is immortalized in a mural at the Mercy Full headquarters. A local artist painted a superhero dog phrase, “We rescue animals. What is your Super Power?”
Acuña has 20 to 60 volunteers who breathe life into Mercy Full. Many help by fostering potential adoptable pets, some by cleaning, others at adoption events.
The rescue need is increasing, and now she needs a van to transport the rescued animals.
“This is a passageway, not a shelter. I am against keeping them in cages,” said Acuña, who developed rules to adopt pets. She sometimes prefers a new owner to join the foster-to-adopt program first.”
“That way I know if new parents are responsible… they must send photos so I know how the animals are. Approximately 99%, everything goes well,” said Acuña.
Ami Gohil, a volunteer, came to Mercy Full Project over a year ago.
Gohil, 47, met Acuña when Gohil decided to adopt a dog for the first time in her life. The lucky one was Pepita, a chihuahua and dachshund mix.
“She was my first dog, and she’s perfect for us. I love her,” said Gohil. “She had bad heartworms, and it’s better. … Pepita is only 4 1/2 years old. She’s too young to die.”
Want to volunteer?
A fundraiser will be held at 3 pm Oct. 5 at 901 N. Fremont Ave., Tampa. The event celebrates the third anniversary of animal rescue. They will have music, food, dogs and cats for adoption. For more information, visit mercyfullprojetcs.org.