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Xena Helps Rescue A Gulf Island in Florida.

The following story, by Stephanie Somerset, appeared in the Spring, 2011 issue of The New Barker dog magazine.

The big ATV roared towards us, scattering birds and shells along the way. On it was an angry park ranger, who dismounted and began his tirade against our dog. We were shocked. Sweet Xena looked up at him with her big brown eyes and cocked her head as he stabbed a finger at her, while calling her a “predator” of the island birds. This was preposterous, of course. We became outraged when he began yelling out a long list of potential crimes that he wanted to ticket us for, most of them any number of innocent activities we’ve all enjoyed at Shell Island in Panama City Beach, Florida.

During the course of four weeks, 14 people received criminal citations for having their family dogs with them or drinking the wrong beverage while at the island. They had to hire attorneys. They had to check in with probation officers. They had to wait alongside drug dealers, thieves and batterers for their turn before a judge. Some were even forced to write a letter of apology to the park service.

The year was 2006, and it all started on a gloriously sun-drenched day as my husband and I walked across Shell Island with our dog, Xena. It was a treasured ritual we enjoyed every summer weekend. Xena was an abandoned puppy on the island of Grenada when we rescued her, healed her and made her our crew while on a sailing sabbatical in 1997. We became inseparable after navigating thousands of miles and exploring each island along the way. When we returned to “real life” in Panama City, our weekend trips to Shell Island with Xena kept our family close. Xena loved the island. She made us laugh when she frolicked and romped in the shallow waters of the bay, and warmed our hearts while sleeping close to us in the boat cockpit at night.

But Memorial Day 2006 changed our lives. Allowing government to ban us from Shell Island – which was purchased with our tax dollars for our recreational use – was unacceptable. Overzealous bureaucrats planned to snatch away one of life’s little joys from boaters visiting a small area – less than ten percent – of Shell Island. We had to act.

And so, Bay Families with Dogs was formed, and the rest is history. Thanks to a huge outpouring of support from the community, today we have dog-friendly access to our anchorage at Shell Island. The state of Florida removed the criminal-level charge from park violations. Police and rangers no longer harass the citizens. And we have a positive relationship with the park system so that we can work together to avoid the events of that summer.

Bay Families with Dogs has branched out to advocate for dog parks, dog beaches and pet-friendly places. The mission lives on. However, the little rescued dog from Grenada does not. Last summer, our faithful Xena, the inspiration for Bay Families with Dogs, passed away at the age of 13.

SIDEBAR: Non-profit Bay Families with Dogs uses tax-deductible donations for maintaining and/or adding dog friendly outdoor spaces, and for expenses including website maintenance, advertising, fliers, and maintenance of pet waste stations at Shell Island and at the Panama City Beach Dog Beach. Fundraising events include monthly Yappy Hours at dog-friendly Salty Sues, 17501 Back Beach Road, Panama City Beach. Call 850.234.8485.

All gifts will be used to maintain Xena’s legacy and the chance for an old dog to roll in the sand, splash in the water, and smile up gratefully at the family members she loves. http://www.bayfwd.org

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