Animals always meant the world to Jackie Ott Jaakola. “I’ve been lucky enough to have them around me all my life,” she tells SRQ. “The relationship you have—they are very dependent on your care and your direction. I don’t want to call it unconditional love, but whatever you put into that relationship you most certainly will get back.” This September, she took on the role of executive director at Cat Depot. We spoke with her about her love of creatures, wild and domesticated, and the path that brought her to Sarasota.  

Home Menagerie   My husband Lance and I, neither one of us has children. I am a parent to two dogs, three cats and to several horses right now. My pets are not all here yet. My dogs are here with me but my husband has still not moved here yet and he has a few more with him. Throughout my life, we have had ducks, rabbits, turtles, fish and donkeys.

Midwest Sea Life  I knew I wanted to work with sea animals, but that the opportunities to do that in the Midwest were always going to be limited. I figured out how to get there volunteering at the St. Louis Zoo, where I pestered the sea lion trainer. I wanted to know everything I needed to do to work in the field. I worked in the children’s zoo for just a couple months and then a position was created for a second sea lion trainer position for me.  

Seal Hospital   I’ve spent about half my career working with marine animals. I was the director of the seal hospital at the Marine Mammal Care Center in Los Angeles. I worked in an operational capacity first. These were sick and injured seals and sea lions that were washing up on some of the nation’s most populated beaches and really had no place as a safe haven. We would treat them and then release them back into the ocean.

Big Brother   I must admit the only current show I try to watch is Big Brother. If I ever find myself between jobs, my husband says that I would be a good candidate. I really enjoy life and that carries through in my demeanor, and I enjoy sharing with people about my passions.  

Cat Mysteries I like to read the Sneaky Pie Brown mysteries (by Rita Mae Brown) or the Midnight Louie series (by Carole Nelson Douglas). I started them years ago just for fun, before I ever knew I was coming to Cat Depot. But they are very simple, nonviolent mysteries. The detective characters are cats or dogs or horses. It’s kind of cheesy, but I enjoy those.

Wallis Annenberg Center  I’ve always worked in the animal welfare fields, and we are really people who help people help animals. In working with Wallis Annenberg, who recognized the human-animal bond and built something
based on that from the ground up, and with for past executive director Leonard Aube, we were really tackling things at a 30,000-foot level and distilling that down. 

Dressage  I’m an avid equestrian. That’s my zen. Being with horses, getting exercise and being outside, you can’t think about anything else while you do that. I’m still waiting for my horses to come make the move here with my husband. But the connection with horses is special because of the concentration it requires. I love anything outdoors—bike riding and swimming—but to share it with animals, that’s what I most enjoy.

Snowpuff   I’m an only child, so the companionship of animals has been instrumental in who I am. I had a dog, some kick of cocker spaniel-poodle mix, growing up and she went on all of our road trips. She was my backseat companion with me. We would play travel bingo and all those things you play with passengers in a car, but we were a little limited because I didn’t have siblings. But just having her go with us on these vacations, those are some of my favorite photos that I look at. We even came to Florida a couple times to go to Disney.  

Plush Animals  I didn’t collect dolls as a child. I collected stuffed toy animals. My grandma counted one year, because we would play animal hospital and zoo, and I had 400 of them. I love all species. I don’t discriminate. I have started donating some of them. But I had this mindset before I started donating that if I could remember the story behind where it came from and who gave it to me, then I wasn’t ready to give it up. I still have 10 Rubbermaid bins full of them. 

Treasures from the Past  I have a dining set and a bedroom set that was my Grandma Ott’s. I think she said she bought them in 1938 when they got married. It’s just sentimental, nothing expensive. But I am kind of the last generation of Otts—my family is extremely small—so that feeling and connection is important. I also have quilts that my grandmother and great grandmother on my mother’s side made by hand, she and the ladies quilting at these church functions. Some have dates on them. Some of them have the states. I probably have around 20.