Seattle's animal shelter sets national benchmark

Oz looked thoroughly depressed as he sat motionless in a cage at the Seattle Animal Shelter last Saturday. The black-and-white cat had been surrendered at the shelter that day by its owner, and his chances of survival would normally be a hit-and-miss proposition, something the cat seemed to realize.

Indeed, 71 percent of the cats and kittens that end up at animal shelters nationwide are put down, according to a 1997 National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy survey.

But the statistics are far rosier at the Seattle Animal Shelter on 15th Avenue West, according to shelter manager Don Jordon. "In 2002, only five adoptable pets were euthanized," he said.

Jordon emphasized the word "adoptable" because shelter records indicate 2,095 other animals were killed last year (see graph). But those pets were too old, too dangerous or too sick to save, he said.

That's not for a lack of trying, though.

"We do our best to rehabilitate animals," Jordon said. In fact, using money donated by the public to the Help the Animals Fund, the shelter spends more than $100,000 a year on veterinary care for the animals in its charge, he said. "That's on top of the $150,000 to $200,000 a year we spend caring for the animals," Jordon added.

A sea change

Since the animal shelter was opened in 1972, much has changed. Back then, staff had to deal with approximately 25,000 live animals per year, he said. "Now we are handling about 8,000 live animals a year."

Jordon attributes the steep drop in numbers to public education about adoptions and an aggressive campaign to convince people they should spay and neuter their pets. The animal shelter does its part as well, insisting that pets adopted there can be released only after they've been sterilized at the Spay and Neuter Clinic next door.

While the number of animals ending up in the shelter has plummeted in the last three decades, the number finding homes has skyrocketed lately. "One of our success stories is we've doubled the amount of animals adopted during the last five years," Jordon said.

The shelter and the spay-and-neuter clinic are operating this year on a budget of $2.4 million, which funds the equivalent of 31 full-time positions, he said. Money for filling three vacant positions at the shelter was cut from this year's budget, but it looks as if the shelter will do okay under the 2004 budget, Jordon added.

To the rescue

What has really saved the day at the shelter are around 600 volunteers who work with the animals in various capacities. The volunteer labor amount-ed to a whopping 50,000 hours of time donated to the shelter in 2002, he said.

Even that number doesn't give a full picture of the amount of time volunteers spend on shelter animals, according to Jordon. "We know it's much, much more than that because people underreport their hours."

Christine Titus, a Magnolia resident and the volunteer coordinator at the shelter, said she works with "an out-standing volunteer force." Volunteers have 18 programs they can choose to work on. These include promoting the adoption of shelter cats, training both dogs and cats, grooming the animals, walking the dogs and, with "Get Fit with Fido," jogging with the dogs.

"Running with the dogs is very unique," said Titus, who added that the shelter gets a lot of calls from other animal shelters about that program.

Also fairly unique is a foster-care program for animals, which people take in at their homes to socialize or care for as they recuperate from injuries and diseases, she said. Once the animals are back in good shape, they are returned to the shelter for adoption.

The foster-care program started in 1999 just for dogs, but it has been expanded to include programs for cats and other critters, Titus explained. "But the cat one is the biggest one," she said of roughly 1,000 cats taken in by foster-care volunteers each year.

Titus said about 200 of the volunteers at the shelter are involved in the foster-care program. "We always need foster parents," she added.

Volunteers also staff the shelter itself. Deb Phelan, a volunteer team leader in charge of critters, said the shelter has rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, a ferret and several rats up for adoption. "And an iguana just came in today," she said last Saturday. "Oh, and we have ducks."

The shelter also picked up a parrot named Carter around six months ago. He was found walking down Dexter Avenue, Phelan said, and adopted by shelter staff. "Carter gets a lot of attention," she added as she clapped and whistled to the parrot, who responded by bobbing its head and doing an avian two-step around its cage.

Just down the hall, in the so-called Cattery, Wendy Warren was handling a shift as a volunteer for the Matchmak-ers program, which seeks to match adoptive families with appropriate pets.

Warren, who specializes in cats, said she can provide a lot of answers for people who are thinking about adopting. For instance, she said, someone who already has a female cat at home would do better to adopt a male cat because the two would get along better than two females.

"And we get to know the cats," Warren added. Some are a bit standoffish, while others are very affectionate. "Papaya is a total lap cat," she said, holding the striped animal. "He's a sweetheart."

Pick me, pick me!

Saturday is a busy day at the Seattle Animal Shelter, partly because shelter staff take several dogs up for adoption to Green Lake on those mornings before the shelter opens at noon, Jordon said. "Usually, there are folks who follow them down from Green Lake and adopt them," he said.

Robin Kinney-Robbins was at the shelter on Saturday afternoon, but her search for a pet was more de-liberate. The Phinney Ridge resident said she and her husband want to adopt a dog that's homeless, but they don't want a big one.

That presents a bit of a dilemma. "It's almost impossible to find a small dog," Kinney-Robbins said as she scanned the caged dogs at the shelter. Normally, Kinney-Robbins checks bulletin boards and the shelter's Web site for the perfect pooch.

"But the new pickups aren't on the Web," she said of the reason she was at the animal shelter last weekend. It's not the first time. "We've been here five times."

Cat Fox (her real name, she said) and her daughter, Tali Hamelton, also stopped by the shelter last Saturday. The Greenwood residents were just looking, though.

The real reason they were there, Fox explained, was to drop off donated food for the animals, not pick one up. "I want to get a pug," Hamel-ton said.

That's a problem because purebreds like pugs don't end up in shelters very often, Fox said, and when they do, a local organization that rescues purebred dogs snaps them up. "They actually come get them in pounds," she said.

A national rep

Jordon said the Seattle Animal Shelter has become a role model for other animal shelters in America. "We've gotten national accolades," is how he put it.

The Seattle facility also generated some national press coverage last fall in a lengthy article in "Animal Sheltering," a magazine published by the Humane Society of the United States.

Jordon isn't surprised. "A lot of national organizations are pointing people to us when they need help," he said.

Volunteer coordinator Titus isn't surprised at the national notice, but she would like to see the shelter go even further. "We want to be put out of business," she said. "That would be a success."

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