Homeless pets stay in lap of luxury

Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2002

RICHMOND, Va. -- Spacious living accommodations with modern European-style furnishings. Classical music piped into every room. A spa area with professional groomers.

Richmond's latest $7 million facility would be a wonderful destination for any stressed-out office-worker. But it's not for them: It's for man's furry friends.

The new shelter for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is set to open Oct. 19, offering fur blow-dryers and music digitally altered to remove the ultrahigh and low notes that are so stressful to canine ears.

''We're removing the barriers that have traditionally kept people from coming in -- that animal shelters are smelly, sad and noisy,'' said Robin Robertson Starr, the society's executive director. ''The point was to create a place that people find positive and upbeat, a place where people want to come and spend time with the animals.''

And adopt. Two years ago, the Richmond area had one of the highest rates of homeless dogs and cats in the country -- more than 18,000 animals were in the city's animal control system. Around half were destroyed. San Fran-cisco, a city four times the size of Richmond, has about 6,000 animals in its pounds.

''Nothing was being done about it for years and years,'' said Denise Deisler, chief operating officer of the Richmond SPCA. ''There was just no focused effort at all.''

Deisler expects the center to make an immediate impact.

The shelter can house up to 150 dogs and 150 cats at a time, increasing current capacity by 50 percent. Deisler estimates that anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 animals will be adopted out of the new center each year, up from the current 3,500.

The goal is to completely eradicate the homeless pet population within the next six years, she said.

According to Starr, the idea behind the shelter is two-pronged. First, the plush, cheerful surroundings act as gift wrapping, making the animals more attractive to visitors and hopefully more adoptable. It also serves to acclimate the animals to living in a home.

Then there's the strict attention paid to keep the animals healthy.

A sophisticated air control system flushes odors and airborne bacteria out of each room every six minutes. The furnished dog and cat visiting rooms are soundproofed to reduce noise, and natural light pours in through skylights.

There's a spay-and-neuter operating room with gleaming metal tables and up-to-date equipment. On the second floor of the 64,000-square-foot old tobacco warehouse is a giant indoor track for dog walking, along with a private pooch potty area.

Richmond's adoption palace was modeled after San Francis-co's, which is generally credited with pioneering the livable adoption idea.

When San Francisco opened its $7 million SPCA shelter in 1998, few people had seen animals living in their own ''apartments,'' with art on the walls and television sets playing videos of foraging songbirds and ''101 Dalmatians.''

It was also one of the first ''no-kill'' facilities in the country, meaning it stopped euthanizing unwanted animals.

Since then, said Karen Pullen, a director at the Humane Society of America, shelters around the country have found small ways to improve the living conditions of their animals, from aromatherapy for cats to music therapy for dogs.

The Richmond SPCA borrowed ideas from nearly a dozen different shelters. The Nebraska Humane Society in Omaha, Neb., was the inspiration for a carwash-like cleaning system in the kennels. The reading room filled with cats came from a shelter in West Swanzey, N.H.

Another thing many shelters are doing is offering behavior counseling to people who want to put their problem pets up for adoption. Pullen said some animal groups have even set up behavior hot lines, which she said dramatically reduces the number of pets dumped at city pounds.

Starr said the Richmond SPCA now offers counseling, and the shelter stopped euthanizing in January. With only the municipal pounds in the area still euthanizing, 1,100 fewer animals have been put to sleep this year compared with the same period last year, Deisler said.

The SPCA raised all of its own money -- about $14.2 million in total. While Pullen said the Richmond center may be extravagant, there haven't been protests over how the money has been spent.

''We have to remember a shelter is meant to be temporary, it's not a home,'' she said.

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