As Felix Varela building faces renovation, students scramble to find animals homes

To everyone around him, Phineas is the perfect catch.

With his brown and black fur and piercing eyes, the 4-year-old Dutch-Shepherd mix likes long walks, swimming and snuggle-time.

As an orphan, Phineas has watched his brothers and sister and his fellow four-legged friends find homes before him.

“He just hasn’t found his soul mate yet,” said Yleana Escobar, the Veterinary Science Magnet lead teacher at Felix Varela Senior High School in Kendall. “It’s kind of like dating. There’s someone out there for him.”

But for Phineas and about 80 other dogs that are part of the school’s veterinary science program, time is not on their side. That’s because the school’s veterinary wing, which houses the kennels, will get a makeover during the summer — and the dogs have to be out by June 6.

So Escobar and her students, who for years have been the saviors for countless sick, neglected and abandoned animals, are asking the community to come to the rescue and adopt the dogs before eviction day.

“These are great, sweet, loving dogs that really need a home,” said Gloria Rodriguez, a Varela senior who remembers Phineas as a puppy. “We need people to step up.”

Rodriguez is one of about 200 students enrolled in the school’s magnet program that allows teens to graduate with a veterinary assistance certification. Beginning at 6 every morning, the students take turns caring for, walking, feeding and cleaning the dogs. They also help find homes year-round for the dogs, working with Friends Forever Rescue, a pet rescue group. Escobar said they average about 500 adoptions a year.

“It’s a big commitment, but it’s worth every minute,” said Rodriguez, 18, who will graduate at the end of this year and plans on attending Santa Fe College in Gainesville.

The 3,200-student school requires veterinary students to take core curriculum classes including math, English and science, but it also gives high-school students hands-on experience.

Behind the walls of the veterinary science wing, dozens of dogs are housed in one classroom. There is an outside kennel for larger dogs during the day and they go inside for the night.

Inside a converted lab, yapping puppies outfitted in colorful T-shirts, as well as barking larger dogs, run curiously to the front of their kennels to greet visitors.

“Go walk those two, we can’t hear anything,” Escobar told two students. “That’s their job,” she said.

Students start by training, caring and taking care of the dogs. Some go on to large animals including cows and goats.

The farm animals inside the school’s barns will not be affected by the construction project.

So how did all these animals come to Varela?

The program began 14 years ago with an agricultural focus. But assistant principal Angela Holbrook said students were more interested in animals than plants. In 2003, the school’s greenhouse and a science lab were converted to accommodate animals.

In 2005, Miami-Dade County Public Schools recognized the veterinary sciences program as a magnet. The program grew in demand. Each year about 800 students apply, but only about 100 are accepted.

Rodriguez said she had no idea what she was getting into when she started as a freshman. But over the years she has grown to love her work. The long nights. The early mornings. The dirty jobs.

“This will all prepare me for the future,” she said.

Meanwhile, the future at Varela involves improvements to the campus.

When Miami-Dade County voters approved a $1.2 billion general obligation bond in 2012, the idea was to spruce up buildings, expand the campus and increase safety. Over the summer, Felix Varela will begin a $1.7 million project to improve the school, 15255 SW 96th St. As part of the project, the veterinary science program will get a new air-conditioning system and the old converted lab will be modernized so the dogs have fancier digs, said Assistant Principal Wendy Barnett.

“This will be a huge improvement for the long term,” she said.

In the past three weeks, the program has found homes for about 40 dogs. Many of the ones left are older, larger dogs, a challenge rescuers frequently face. Escobar said she is hoping to find a permanent home for the animals, but she is willing to work with people who are willing to foster the dogs for a minimum of three months.

Dee Chess, founder of Friends Forever Rescue, said people seem to think larger dogs require more care.

“Big dogs are usually gentle and most of them are easy to take care of,” she said. “They are very loveable. You have to give them a chance.”

The students agree.

“Everyone wants the puppies, but we try to tell them that the older dogs are actually easier,” said sophomore Alexa Grau, 16, as she played with Luigi, one of three puppies left from a litter of eight dropped off a few months ago.

Escobar said Luigi’s tale is something she sees often. One Saturday night, after getting home from a long day at work, she put dinner in the oven and sat down on her couch. Her phone rang.

A frantic young man found a litter of puppies in a field off Krome Avenue in Miami-Dade. He didn’t know what to do, so he called Escobar.

Sure enough, Escobar dropped what she was doing and called in reinforcements — her students — and headed back to school. The puppies had fleas, ticks and mange, but otherwise they were all in good health. That day they got a loving home and names — all paying homage to their rescuer who came from Italy.

“It’s the only way I remember their names and stories,” Escobar said, saying she picks a theme for each group of animals and sticks with it. There’s Mahi Mahi and Tarpon and Dandelion, which she named because there was a flower up her nose when she was found.

Escobar said that while the school faces a crisis, she will not turn over any of the dogs to Miami-Dade Animal Services, or any other shelter that euthanizes.

“I don’t care if I have to pay for boarding myself,” she said. “Nothing will happen to these dogs.”