Creature Comforts

The Pima Animal Care Center seeks an overhaul

Earlier this month, Marc Hammond stood behind a walnut podium, in a room marked by half-full juice glasses, shiny coffee urns and soothing carpet.

Before him, in a horseshoe array of banquet tables, sat assorted members of the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee. Ultimately, these leading lights will decide whether to recommend a $15 million boost for the Pima Animal Care Center, where Hammond works as a field officer. The money would fund a new shelter and satellite facilities.

In turn, the committee will eventually forward its advice to the Board of Supervisors, which may or may not choose to include the Animal Care Center in a future bond election

And so this meeting was something of a beggar's banquet, as Hammond described the center's gloomy, overcrowded headquarters on North Silverbell Road. "Our shelter was built in 1968, at a time when the population here was 330,000," he said. "I don't think our forefathers knew that in 2008, we'd have a million people. The way our kennels are right now, we're facing a crisis. Every year, we go to the Board of Supervisors and try to ask (for more money), but they just keep putting a Band-Aid on the problem."

The crisis can also get personal. "Every single day, I have to defend myself as people call me a dog killer," he said. "And why is that? It's because that's what we do. We kill dogs, because we don't have a facility that's big enough to be able to house all these animals."

A new shelter would replace what Hammond called "the dungeon" with state-of-the-art kennels and an adoption area that makes people want to visit, rather than repelling them with its current cellblock aesthetics.

But the bond election has yet to be scheduled, and voters might balk at the cost. Still, the fact that Animal Care must go to the ballot at all--to replace a center built the year Richard Nixon won the White House--speaks volumes about where this shelter falls on Pima County's priority list.

True, the agency did receive $3 million in a 2004 bond election, earmarked for remodeling. But after electrical and plumbing problems sucked up huge sums, there wasn't much left for renovation. In the end, Animal Care was only able to rehabilitate 30 kennels; at least 200 are needed.

Meanwhile, the shelter bides its time and continues functioning in a building that reflects an earlier era in more than just architecture. "It's not modern animal care," admits Kim Janes, the center's manager. "We're working in a facility that was built in a time when all animals lived outside, and people did what they wanted with them. The (shelter) was just here to hang on to an animal until folks came to get it or whatever happened."

In those old days, euthanization of unwanted pets was routine. "I can't cite specifics," Janes says, "but I've heard that the slightest indication (of disease or illness) at that time would put the animal on the euthanasia trail."

In 2002, Animal Care adopted a "no-kill philosophy." Although a weak-kneed cousin to an actual no-kill policy, it's the right instinct in an unfortunate reality. According to Janes, the change means that animals won't be euthanized unless they show signs of illness or aggression.

But this switch also creates a Catch-22 for center staff. The shelter is critically short of kennels, a problem compounded by an abundance of pit bulls, each of which must be penned separately. On average, the dogs occupy nearly half of the available space. That squeezes other animals together, sometimes several to a pen.

Such overcrowding not only results in high rates of infectious diseases, such as the notorious "kennel cough," but also raises the potential for fights or other aggressive behavior. And if either of those two things occur, odds are that the animals involved will be euthanized.

Still, there has been progress. In fiscal year 2006-2007, the shelter handled more than 21,000 animals. But through close cooperation with some local 30 rescue groups, Janes' staff was able to save 7,500 of the pets, up from only 6,300 a year earlier.

"The big difference between last year and prior years was the increase in rescue interest, and the community coming out and adopting animals," he says. "That and the fact that we hang on to animals until there's a pressing public health or safety issue."

Perennial problems have hardly disappeared, however. With kennel space in such short supply, there's never a guarantee that all viable animals can be saved. There was a close call just last summer, Janes says, "when we started having eight or nine or 10 medium-sized dogs in a kennel. We took a look at making that tough call with some of them."

Which raises the question: Will there come a time when such "tough calls" won't be necessary? According to animal advocates, that's exactly what the public is starting to demand. "Local leaders are realizing that their communities want a respectable animal shelter," says Kimberly Intino, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States.

That demand reflects a larger societal shift, she says. "When animal control first surfaced, it was in the early 1930s, and it came to light because of rabies in dogs. What has changed over last 30 years, however, with animal control and humane societies, is that animals are now being seen as members of the family. So this is no longer just a human health and control issue."

Instead, it is a moral and ethical issue. "We don't want to just have facilities that keep animals and euthanize them after their time is up," Intino says. "We're looking at these animal shelters as places to educate the public on responsible pet ownership, to help place good pets back into the community and to reduce the euthanasia numbers."

Janes says he's seen that transformation as well. "I think it's been coming for a long time, just slowly growing. Now it's time to get a building that's equal to the community's position on animal care."

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