PALM HARBOR — Twelve-year-old Austin Testa found his voice to help rescue distressed pet animals at an early age.
In 2014, the then-6-year-old Palm Harbor resident felt an urge to speak up for those four-legged creatures who could not speak for themselves. As he went to visit a Walmart store with $100 in birthday money to pick up LEGO toy presents with his mom, Michelle Testa, he saw an opportunity to help.
“I saw fleece blankets for a dollar each and I bought a bunch of them and went to the animal shelters,” Austin said. “From then on, I always thought about the animals in those shelters and they have no one that loves them.”
In less than a month, Austin had orange business cards printed with “Every Bark Counts” — the name of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit he founded at the Humane Society of Pinellas County in Clearwater.
Austin’s nonprofit is founded on a simple goal: “Raise donations to help those animals that can’t speak for themselves.”
“You see an animal in a shelter that is curled up in the back of a cage scared for his life,” he said. “They can’t talk and need someone to help them. I thought, ‘I could be the one to help them.’”
Almost seven years after Austin’s animal epiphany, he has set up a GoFundMe.com account to raise money to buy animal supplies, food and other materials to donate to local animal shelters and rescue stations in the Tampa Bay area and beyond.
Instead of sending shelters cash, Austin secures shelter “wish lists” that detail their most important supply needs, which he then fills.
In recognition of his work, Austin is featured in the recent issue of Kind News Magazine, a children’s magazine published by RedRover, a national animal welfare nonprofit organization that can be found at KindNews.org.
Before the arrival of COVID-19, Austin and his mom attended animal events where he could sell T-shirts, popcorn, cotton candy or shaved flavored ice to raise funds for his nonprofit.
Since starting the nonprofit, Austin has raised an estimated $86,000 in funds that he has donated to local animal shelters. His biggest donation so far: $10,000 from a woman from California named “Ginger” who read about Austin’s work and eagerly donated to his cause.
“I was in a big shock that someone would donate that much,” Austin said. “It made me realize that people are seeing what I’m doing for the animals.”
For his work, Austin has been awarded by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Palm Harbor) during his annual “Heroes Among Us” event that recognizes community leaders who perform volunteerism and good deeds.
GoFundMe has also named Austin a “Kid Hero.”
This year, Austin will extend the name of his nonprofit to “Every Bark Counts, Because Animals Can’t Speak for Themselves” that will appear on both his business card and T-shirts sold to generate donation funds.
Among the pet animals Austin has rescued is a bull mastiff named Hubble, a dog who was crippled after being thrown out of a car by its owner.
Austin paid the $2,500 for the dog’s extensive surgery at the Day and Evening Pet Hospital in Palm Harbor after a separate nonprofit organization found Hubble beaten.
Austin said when he visited Hubble after surgery, the dog actually recognized him.
“When we went in, the first person that he went to was actually me,” he said. “You could just tell that he was happy and he was thinking right then.”
Austin’s work has saved several abandoned pet animals from being euthanized, steering them to a safe owner home.
“I helm (sponsor) dogs mostly,” Austin said. “But if there is another type of animal that is about to get euthanized, I would help it.”
Austin has saved a pregnant horse in Oklahoma from the slaughterhouse, paying for her to be brought to Florida where she now lives and was able to have her baby.
Aptly, Austin named the horse Chance, saying “I gave it a second chance.”
Austin also serves as a model for distressed animal care, adopting three shelter dogs over the years. All three are Chihuahuas— Bella, a brindle; Oreo, a black and white Jack Russell mix; and Diesel, an all-black Chihuahua and beagle mix.
“I adopted each of these dogs when they were very little and have had them basically their whole lives,” Austin said. “I want to inspire other people. There are too many animals being abused or in the shelters waiting for a home.”
As part of Austin’s nonprofit charter, he’ll hit the road to rescue distressed animals. One such rescue involved a 10-hour round trip to donate money to sponsor a dog rescue.
Austin also sponsors or “helms” destressed animals’ long distance, donating money to help save pets all over the country.
“Let’s say there’s a dog named “Wilbur’ from New Jersey,” he said. “If he had a medical bill, I would pay for it and he would then be placed in a home.”
Austin’s animal-saving skills are sometimes called on in other parts of the world.
“Austin has gotten an email from someone seeking help in the Fiji Islands,” Michelle Testa said.
Austin says he would also like to inspire other people to help animal rescue stations and shelters with the hope of stopping animal cruelty and eliminating animal kill shelters.
To others interested in helping destressed pet animals, Austin suggests that they donate time or money to their local animal shelter or rescue station. And, they can actually adopt a shelter animal for themselves.
This year, Austin and his mom hope to reopen their shaved ice concession stand dubbed The Atomic Dog Snow Shack.
One of Austin’s long-term goals is to build his own animal shelter that would serve as a permanent home and include pools and separate doghouses and play areas for each animal.
“I’m going to be doing this for years and years,” Austin said. “I actually want to buy a shelter for the animals, so they would no longer feel abandoned, and they would just live in comfort.”