Animal shelter changes loom

Things are going to change at Oak Harbor’s animal shelter.

Currently, the situation is pretty bleak: Somewhere from 75 to 130 dogs and cats are euthanized each year. The contractor who runs the shelter says he can’t afford to allow volunteers to help out and he’s against starting a foster care program. The shelter had no spay and neutering program for years until a veterinarian clinic recently offered to do the service for free.

Most of the pets in the drafty, run-down shelter don’t have blankets to keep them from the cold steel and cement. The shelter doesn’t have a quarantine area for sick pets or a safe place for dogs to exercise. It’s only open 18 hours a week and the average citizen doesn’t even know it’s located on the Navy Seaplane base.

“Most people who come out of there (the shelter) are horribly, horribly upset...” Betty Gable, a volunteer for the county’s animal shelter operator, Whidbey Animal Improvement Foundation, said to the Oak Harbor City Council Tuesday. “It’s a horrible situation out there.”

The council members unanimously agreed to request proposals for shelter operations and animal control. The request for proposals opens Oct. 1 and runs until Oct. 25. Anyone or any group that wishes to provide animal control, run the shelter, or both, can send in a proposal that includes many specifics, including a budget.

In addition, council members agreed that the city needs a new shelter and that they will work toward the goal in upcoming budget talks.

About a dozen community members attended the council meeting and a workshop Tuesday night to discuss the state of the animal shelter. Several people gave tearful testimony decrying the way pets are treated in the city and offered to volunteer at the animal pound.

“The state of the animal shelter truly saddens me,” said resident Jolie Spada. She added that the city needs to market the shelter better because many people don’t even know it exists.

Steve Almon, Oak Harbor police chief, is the supervisor of animal control and a member of an ad hoc committee set up by council to review the city’s policies concerning the animal shelter and animal control. He said the committee came up with a list of “enhancements” they would like to see included in a proposal.

The key points the committee wants in the proposals, Almon said, are processes and policies to reduce the euthanasia of dogs and cats; a foster care program for pets; a spay and neutering program; a volunteer program; an exercise program for pets; a program to increase dog and cat licensing; and other activities to increase the welfare of creatures at the shelter, such as blankets, heaters, toys or a good coat of paint.

“The main concern,” Almon said, “is the city’s desire to restrict the euthanasia of animals.”

Terry Sampson has contracted with the city to provide animal control services and to run the animal shelter for about 19 years. According to Almon, the city pays Sampson $58,000 a year for “his salary and after-hour call-outs.” In addition, Sampson keeps the adoption and surrender fees.

Under the city’s contract with Sampson, he didn’t have to account for how much he makes in fees, which has been a bone of contention among council members. They want the new contract to require the shelter operator to report regularly on the numbers of animals and the fees collected, though the contractor will still likely be able to keep the money.

Based on the number of animals that went through the shelter last year, Sampson probably collected at least $15,000 in fees. That totals $73,000 a year for providing both animal control — picking up strays, dealing with animal problems — and running the shelter. He has to pay for his own insurance, a part-time person to help run the shelter and other expenses like gas.

In 2003, 314 dogs and 241 cats went through the shelter. Of those, 51 cats and 25 dogs were euthanized. The rate of euthanasia has declined, a council members pointed out, since Almon became involved in oversight of the facility in 2002. In 2001, for example, 73 cats and 68 dogs were put to permanent sleep.

According to Sampson, animals are given lethal injections when they can’t be adopted — feral cats, dangerous dogs — if there’s not enough space, or sometimes if they are sick.

By comparison, WAIF, a non-profit group that contracts to run Island County’s animal shelter, maintains a minimum-kill shelter south of Coupeville. Sheri Bibich, shelter manager, said only animals with severe behavioral problems or terminal illnesses are euthanized. In 2003, 29 out of 1,011 cats and dogs were euthanized.

Lesley Mills, executive director of WAIF, said the organization is “interested in helping” with the Oak Harbor shelter under the new policies. She said the organization has “extended many offers” to help with the Oak Harbor pound in the past — by taking animals into the WAIF shelter in order to lessen euthanasia — but “things didn’t always work out.”

According to Bibich, Sampson only agreed to allow WAIF to takes animals on two occasions, even though there’s nothing to disallow it in the city code.

Mills said WAIF members will look at the request-for-proposal guidelines and decided whether to make a formal proposal to the city. “We’re going to look at all possibilities,” she said.

Jane McKelvy, a veterinarian at the Best Friends Animal Clinic, said the clinic has been spaying and neutering pets from the city shelter for free for the last several months. She said the veterinarians got involved because “a lot of our clients are concerned about what’s going on there.”

McKelvy said she hopes to be able to continue the free service.

Tuesday, Almon and city council members discussed the animal shelter in a workshop prior to the regular meeting. Almon said the current facility, a broken-down shack on the Navy Seaplane base, is totally unacceptable. The only good thing about it, he said, is that the Navy provides it for free.

The problem with the shelter, he said, is that it’s too small, it has no exercise area or bathrooms, and it’s in a bad spot. Besides being hard to find, Almon said base access is a problem. Non-military folks can currently get there by providing a license, car registration and proof of insurance at the gate to the Seaplane base.

But, as Almon pointed out, the Navy can shut down access to the base at a moment’s notice, as happens during times of heightened terrorism alerts.

“I really think we should look at moving the facility off the base as soon as possible,” Councilman Paul Brewer said.

Almon said council members should discuss the possibilities of building a new shelter during the upcoming round of budget talks. Cathy Rosen, city public works superintendent, said the city has an ideal chunk of land for a shelter off Goldie Road, next to an off-leash dog park.

Councilman Eric Gerber suggested that the city could use the funds from dog and cat licenses to fund a shelter.

In addition, Almon said after the meeting that city officials should review city codes in regard to animals, particularly the “dangerous and potentially dangerous dogs” ordinance. His concern is that the code lacks flexibility.

Potentially dangerous dogs are defined as a pit bull terrier, a pit bull-mix or “any dog with a known propensity, tendency, or disposition to attack unprovoked, to cause injury to, or to otherwise endanger the safety of humans of other domestic animals.”

If a potentially dangerous dog ends up at the shelter, it must be euthanized, under the ordinance. Almon said this has led to situations where a person surrenders a dog and notes that he or she feels the dog was aggressive. Even if the animal control officer believes that the dog is obviously not dangerous, Almon said it still must be destroyed because of the wording of the ordinance.

“The shelter has been a hot topic for a couple of years,” Almon said. “I think it’s a good time to step back and look at how we are doing business from all aspects.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at or 675-6611.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 19
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates