Treating animals with kindness and respect is at the heart of the new Blue Sky Relief Foundation. Through education, pop up spay and neuter clinics and changes in animal cruelty laws and enforcement, founder Shanna Dickerson and her team advocate for the territory’s animals.

Dickerson, owner of Blue Sky Luxury Travels, which she founded 11 years ago on St. John, has been an animal lover all her life. Having dogs at home, she never realized as a child that there were so many animals that were homeless or in shelters, many being euthanized. Now she’s determined to do something about it.

A large part of the foundation’s efforts will focus on its “Kindness Club” classes, “getting to the grass roots of animal abuse, neglect and homelessness by bringing children and animals together.”

Blue Sky Relief is working to offer humane education to local schools, bringing shelter animals into the classroom so children can interact with them and learn how they should be treated. Dickerson explains “how we learn to treat animals is how we will treat each other.” So far, three schools on St. Croix and one on St. John, have approved the program to begin this fall with more from St. Thomas expected to be added into the program soon.

“A kid who starts abusing small animals, like lizards, if you don’t educate that child that it is wrong, they’re going to graduate to a cat or a dog, and then eventually to people. We have to hit their minds on how to treat animals from young,” said Detective Daniel Rodriguez. Rodriguez is the only permanent full time animal cruelty investigator in the Virgin Islands, based on St. Croix. He is now a board member for Blue Sky Relief. He was teaching third grade classes about animal abuse and the laws and penalties for it before the pandemic and will continue educating students with Blue Sky Relief in the fall.

Because of COVID restrictions, Dickerson wanted to make sure they could reach out to students still learning at home, so they are producing two videos to start, one an educational video called “Why the Dogs Bark” and another hosted by Rodriguez, which will explain what animal abuse and neglect are and the animal cruelty laws and penalties in the Virgin Islands. These videos will be sent to principals to distribute to students. The foundation also hopes to work with schools to do field trips to the shelters to learn where they are and what they do.

“We want to work on giving schools a pretty wrapped bow of “The Kindness Club” program with videos, classes we recommend, field trips we recommend, to make it easy,” said Dickerson. “Right now, we’re just listening to schools that we have and are building on what’s good for them, so we are very excited that our foot’s in the door and we’re beginning this program starting in September.”

Another area of focus for Blue Sky Relief Foundation is pop up spay and neuter clinics in the territory. According to Dickerson, organizations in Puerto Rico, which has a large stray dog population, have had great success with pop up clinics. We have way too many puppies that are coming in on a normal basis or getting dumped at the dumps, she said, so the spay and neuter clinics will play a very big part in trying to control this.

On the other end of the spectrum, Blue Sky Relief wants to work on animal abuse law enforcement and promote changes in animal cruelty laws.

“We would love to see the V.I. government train and certify more full time animal cruelty investigators because we only have three in total. One is part time on St. Croix, Detective Rodriguez is full time on St. Croix and there is a part time woman on St. Thomas, but she is out right now because of an injury. The shelters on St. Thomas and St. John have nobody to contact when they have cases.”

According to Rodriguez, by U.S. Virgin Islands law, a separate fund is supposed to be allocated for education and other animal cruelty expenses, funded by fines collected for animal abuse or neglect that is paid to the court to help pay for animal medical treatment, education and other related programs.

“Since they created this fund, I don’t think there’s $1 in it. Nobody is pushing for it,” said Rodriguez. “So, there is no cash in there that I could use for my cases, for example, medical expenses. Blue Sky Relief Foundation can help me with some of those bills.”

The foundation is also working with V.I. senators to increase animal cruelty penalties and incarceration for offenders.

“Right now, it’s a felony if you abuse an animal in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but it’s like a slap on the wrist fine,” said Dickerson. “We are trying to get more towards what Puerto Rico has, which is a much higher fine, but we’ve got to get the officers in there to follow the cases to convict them. I would also like to make adopting an animal a tax deduction and have a much higher tax rate for puppy mills. Those are the laws I’m going after.”

Dickerson is ambitious with the Blue Sky Relief Foundation, but she is determined to make a difference.

“This is a 50-year deal,” said Dickerson. “You’re not going to probably see much serious change for 50 years, but we’d really like to get that going.”

For more information or to donate, visit www.blueskyrelief.org.