Gimme shelter

Oak Harbor’s animal shelter is a no frills kind of place. Cats and dogs are housed in pens, with concrete floors, food and water.

Critics call the shelter uncomfortable and inhumane. Others say the austere accommodations are adequate for the hundreds of surrendered pets and strays picked off city streets each year.

Located at the Seaplane Base, some city residents are hardly aware it’s even there. Meanwhile, WAIF, a nonprofit shelter south of Coupeville that serves Island County residents, is a much larger presence, with thrift stores in Oak Harbor and Freeland, regular newspaper advertising and a Web site that features adoption-ready pets.

On Tuesday, Oak Harbor City Council members will discuss the state of the city’s shelter and will authorize a request for proposals that will result in a new contract. The current contract comes to an end in June.

For the past 15 years Terry Sampson has served as the city’s animal control officer. Sampson, working under consecutive three-year contracts, says he knows some are dissatisfied with the shelter, especially when it comes to the number of animals that are put down each year.

Last year, 575 cats and dogs passed through the shelter. Of that number, 77 were euthanized.

“It’s a pretty emotional issue and it’s a difficult one,” Sampson said. “What do you say? A lot of what I do at the shelter is ordained by municipal code.”

Sampson, who was born and raised on the south end of the island, got into the animal control business after working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. While there, Sampson heard there was a job available at Oak Harbor’s animal shelter.

He gladly returned to Whidbey Island and worked, at first, for a previous animal control officer before taking on the contract himself. His current contract runs to about $58,000 a year.

It’s up to Sampson to decide how to allocate the money, which pays for operational costs at the shelter, part-time employees, as well as his own salary. The city also chips in about $11,000 for utilities and maintenance.

Sampson said animals are euthanized when he runs out of room at the shelter.

Some council members say the shelter needs a new philosophy.

“Personally, I have felt we could have been a bit more humane in the treatment of animals,” said council member Sheilah Crider.

Crider, along with council members Sue Karahalios and Larry Eaton, have met in recent months as part of a separate committee examining the city’s animal shelter.

Oak Harbor Police Chief Steve Almon is the city staff representative on the committee. Since Almon was hired as chief in February 2002, the animal shelter has become one of his duties. Before that, the city’s administrator was responsible for overseeing the shelter.

“When I arrived here there were allegations of mistreatment of animals,” he said.

So far, Almon said he hasn’t seen anything that bears that out. He’s visited the shelter several times and found it satisfactory.

The two cities Almon worked for in Oklahoma also ran shelters.

“Certainly, my experience is limited but compared to the other two shelters, this one is cleaner,” he said.

Almon says he loves animals. He adopted one of several abused collies that made headlines when they were removed from their Camano Island owner, who allegedly had mistreated them.

Council members Eaton and Karahalios consider themselves animal lovers, as well.

Crider, who once sat on WAIF’s board of directors, is a cat person. She has three kitties, named Rascal, Bitty and H’Bear.

She would like to see the city shelter run more like WAIF, where volunteers walk the dogs and interact with the animals daily. WAIF rarely, if ever, puts a cat or dog to sleep, except in the most extreme circumstances. When space runs short, foster families temporarily take in cats and dogs, until there is more room.

At the Oak Harbor shelter, animals are regularly put down because of lack of space.

“There’s only so much room in the inn,” Sampson said.

He said the problem lies with pet owners who are not responsible in caring for their animals. Many of the animals housed at the city’s shelter are handed over by owners who are moving, or unable to handle their cat or dog, financially or otherwise.

“When they get an animal they have to be in it for the long haul,” he said.

Sampson said he does not have volunteers walk the shelter’s dogs, or handle the cats, because of the legal liability.

“All it takes is a swipe across the retina of the eye and there’s a problem,” he said. “And I don’t have a staff big enough to run a volunteer program.”

The city’s animal shelter also does not provide spay and neuter services. Those who adopt an animal have to bring their pets to the vet to have surgery performed.

Such services are built into the price tag of animals adopted at WAIF, where a dog costs $70 and a cat costs $55.

Some of WAIF’s operational costs are offset by Island County, which pays to house dogs at the shelter for up to five days. The rest is made up through adoptions, donations, thrift store sales and an extensive volunteer network.

At the Oak Harbor shelter, residents can adopt an animal for $40. Local veterinarians provide the cats and dogs with a brief exam when they are adopted.

Another issue surrounding the city’s shelter is its location on the Navy base. City residents need to pass through the Seaplane Base gates to get to the shelter.

Sampson said it’s easy to do. All a person needs is a valid driver’s license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration papers.

Still, the shelter’s removed location makes it a bit more difficult to attract potential pet owners.

The shelter is located on the base through an arrangement with the Navy. The Navy allows the city to use the building for animal control services and in return the city takes care of the surrendered and abandoned cats and dogs on the base. The Navy conducts regular inspections of the shelter, as part of the arrangement.

“It works out for them and it works out for us,” Almon said. “We don’t have to build our own facility.”

Over the years, the city has expanded the shelter after winning Navy approval.

“This has been a wonderful marriage with the Navy,” Crider agreed. “They have helped us. We have helped them. We just simply want to make it a bit better.”

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